Hustle & Flow: Sundance Film Fest Hit

Making the Indie Hit
On Stephanie Allain as Producer

Stephanie Allain was with the movie for three years. Id try to quit, and she wouldn’t let me. She flew me to L.A. on her own dime, sometimes even paid my rent. We were turned down by every studio in town. When she brought the script to John Singleton, wed decided to do it on Digital Video for $200,000. Stephanie went to John to see if hed split the budget with her. We made “Hustle & Flow” in four weeks, relatively soon after Singleton pulled together the financing himself.

I had experience working in Digital Video. My first film, “The Poor & Hungry,” was initially financed by a $20,000 inheritance in the wake of my father’s death. Made over the course of two years, the film went on to win the Best Digital Feature award at the 2000 Hollywood Film Festival and has found a home on the Independent Film Channel. I had sought out Allain after reading Robert Rodriguez’ book “Rebel Without a Crew, which identified Allain as the person who had started both Rodriguez’ and Singleton’s careers, and I was looking for a producer.

Allain spent the next two years trying to set “Hustle & Flow” up at various studios around town, but met frustration nearly everywhere. But Allain eventually did find a studio division that looked like it would finance the movie. The division’s president had seen Brewer’s first film and had voiced confidence in his ability to make the movie, but the project ultimately ended up in turnaround.

It was rough going. The film was hot and cold at the same time. Allain was working at 3 Arts, and left to do this full time. She really stuck it out. She sold her house and went back to people seeking financing three or four times.

In the middle of this process, an agent introduced Allain to Terrence Howard, in hopes that Allain would consider casting him in another project. Allain was then at 3 Arts Entertainment, the company producing a film called “Biker Boyz” for DreamWorks. Howard not only got a role in that film, Allain was convinced she had found DJay, and immediately set up a meeting with me.

John Singleton’s Invaluable Contribution

Singleton loved how audacious it was. The story was different from anything hed read, and it was the kind of script he would have wanted to direct myself. He saw my first film, and he was like, wow, this guy can direct.’ Singleton realized this was a script about a pimp, but it wasn’t done in a stereotypical manner. It had heart.

Singleton said, “f–k it, Im going to green light the movie. Hollywood turned their back on “Hustle & Flow,” because most people in Hollywood did not grow up with hip-hop, they grew up with rock n’ roll. They have no idea about how hip hop has pervaded pop culture, how it’s taken up the same cultural space that rock n’ roll once did. The whole world of the pimp and hustler is unfamiliar to the town.

As a filmmaker, Singleton tries to explore what Hollywood hasn’t done, deal with things that Hollywood is afraid of. There hasn’t been a single quality movie in a generation that’s put the relationship between a pimp and his ladies in the forefront the story. Singleton was impressed that I have made a fully realized character out of an archetype.

Casting Terrence Howard

Though he was perfect for the part, Howard was a hard sell to the town. He had a bit of a bad boy reputation, and people at the studios also felt the role should go to someone who was already an established, and therefore more bankable, like a famous rap star. In spite of what we were hearing from the studios, Allain and I wanted Howard for the role, and committed to him.

Well before production began, we sent Terrence Howard on a research mission to Memphis and to work with local rappers on what would become DJay’s flow. As a singer, Howard is a balladeer. As an actor, he had to shake that off and take on this Memphis crunk vibe.

The Rest of the Ensemble

Without anyone to pick up the bills, Allain started flying me from Memphis to L.A. for a series of meetings with potential financiers and actors who would play supporting roles. In spite of the fact that every studio in town had passed on making the movie, word was out in the creative community that “Hustle & Flow” was a great script.

DJ Qualls had committed to making the movie two years before the cameras starting rolling. Taryn Manning liked the script and signed on. I began courting Ludacris, though he had to do a great deal of heavy lifting, since the rapper wanted to play anyone in the movies, except a rapper.

Cars in the Story

The real story here is in the parking lot. Like the cruising scene on Crenshaw in “Boyz N the Hood,” the parking lot of the Crystal Palace is packed with cars. But the cars we have here are not all supposed to be tricked out. If anything, here in the South, we kind of celebrate having cars that are hoopties,’ like Chevy Caprices, Pontiacs. Theyre American cars and they have primer spots all over them, different color panels, everything. But, theyre always riding on chrome.

The whole idea of this movie is, don’t always pay attention to the top, but look what weve got going on for us down here. It’s kind of like what DJay is all about. His car is made from red white and blue: blue car with a red panel and white silver chrome wheels. This is the scene in Memphis, and this is what were trying to create.

Making the Film

The move toward production started shortly after Singleton joined the team, though with a new mandate to make the film as economically as possible. We already had cinematographer Amy Vincent committed to the project, and we had decided early on to shoot on film in 16mm. It gave me something close to the fluidity I have had on my first film, which was shot on DV.
We managed to schedule the production into four, very busy six-day weeks.

The Music

We also had much work to do on the musical aspects of the film before we shot a single frame. Singleton and I worked with local artists to figure out DJay’s music and lyrics, which Howard returned to Memphis to record in late May. Then, I returned to L.A. to finalize casting, leaving Howard alone in a tiny Memphis crunk recording studio with Juicy J and Al Kapone. Watching Terrence become DJay was really exciting. We came out with the four tracks that he would do in the movie. The guys in Memphis were so cool that they totally embraced him. Soon, Howard picked up the Memphis style, the walk, the talk, the cadence of lyric.

Singleton introduced Howard to Juicy J, a Memphis rapper with Three 6 Mafia. Juicy J had done a song for his film, “Baby Boy,” and he realized that for Southern hip hop, Juicy J was the guy. This was Singleton’s first independent production, and he called in a lot of favors from people like Jay.

I knew Singleton was really set on working with Juicy J and when he played us the beat for “Hard for a Pimp,” John and I flipped out. But I also knew that the Memphis sound, what I hear as that real Memphis crunk shit, was the rap of Al Kapone. When Singleton was in town to listen to beats and flow, I told Al Kapone, “You have one shot at getting the job.” Kapone studied the script, got on the phone with Howard and asked lots of questions. When Singleton saw Kapone, the rapper “killed” it. He performed the final song of the movie, incorporating moments from the script, the character’s history, he even named it “Aint Ovah,” which is a line that Anthony’s character says to DJay. Singleton loved it, and asked, ‘What else you got’ Al was like, ‘I got this one called “Whoop That Trick.” We heard it and made it the first track that DJay and his crew records.

Shooting the Music

After sorting out the music, Singleton and Allain assembled a crew made up of cinematographer Amy Vincent and Singleton’s long-time production designer, Keith Burns, with whom he had worked in the past. We shot all music scenes first. I knew I wanted a great deal of freedom to shoot them, so the set for the recording studio in DJay’s house was built from scratch. The rest of the movie used real locations, because it was importantto get an authentic representation of Memphis. The exterior of DJay’s house is in a neighborhood where the cast and crew watched as real pimps and their girls solicited tricks every day.

The Community

People in Memphis really came out to support us. Linn Sitler, the film commissioner, hooked us up with office space, police help, everything. Without Linn, making “Hustle & Flow” would have been a far different, and much less pleasant, experience. But our production did run into one troublesome and very public snag, when local observer accused actor Anthony Anderson and an assistant director of sexual assault. Both Anderson and the AD denied any wrongdoing, and in October, a judge dismissed the case.

On Stretching

The movie became about all of us trying to do something different. It was about Singleton wanting to work outside the system, and about Terrence stepping up to the plate as a lead. Anthony Anderson is primarily known as a comic actor, but here, he gets to do a dramatic turn. The cast and crew of “Hustle & Flow” became like a family, and I was like DJay, leading the family, trying to help us live our dream.

Writer-director Craig Brewer is a native of Virginia who spent his childhood in Memphis. Brewer grew up writing and directing plays in school, ultimately landing at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Missing the South, Brewer moved back to Memphis with his wife, Jodi. After his father’s untimely death, Brewer used the small inheritance to make his first feature. Shot on digital video, “The Poor & The Hungry” became a hit on the festival circuit and was later sold to the Independent Film Channel. Brewer’s script for”Hustle & Flow,” was partly inspired by the experience of finding his own voice