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Producer Carl Craig

I talked to producer Carl Craig at his office on Wilshire Blvd June 7, 2002. He's a smart, genial, light-skinned black man.

Carl: "I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I had five brothers. My father was a music professor at Southern University. I was into music as a kid. I was deemed a child prodigy. Because he pushed me too hard, I backed off by the ninth grade. I was playing the trumpet in concerts at Southern University. I went to Southern University High School. The student body at the highschool and college was 5% white and 95% black.

"I made some adaptions to this Vandegraf generator. The U.S. Navy flew me out to Los Angeles on an F-16 plane in the ninth grade and gave me an award.

"I went to the University of Rochester, which was predominantly Jewish. I studied mechanical engineering. It was more theoretical than practical, so I switched my major to English and Drama. I graduated in 1976.

"I moved to New York and worked with the critically acclaimed dramatic group the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). It was my first interview where I spoke to someone through a mirror. I performed in several off-Broadway plays with NEC."

Luke: "Can you pass as white?"

Carl: "I haven't but I'm sure that I could. I remember when I was doing extra work in New York, this producer comes up to the extras casting person right in front of me says, 'I thought I ordered black people.' And I turned around and said, 'I am black.' And he replied, 'Look at you. My skin is just as dark as yours.' He really irritated me so I said, 'Where's the f--king mop? Because I know you're going to give me a janitorial job.'

"A couple of times when I went to auditions, I'd go up to the receptionist who'd send me to the white audition. That led me to not want to audition for people as much anymore. That's when Robert Townsend and I got together and we started to make Hollywood Shuffle [released in 1987]."

Sonic writes on Imdb.com: "Robert Townsend has made a great movie about the stereotyping of blacks in Hollywood. The movie mocks both the people who created the stereotypes, and the stereotypes themselves. A lot of great little sketches are spliced in among the main plotline, and they all are....I can't think of a better word than wacky. They're all wacky. The movie also has Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Damon Wayans (if you look closely). A great movie, especially for the miniscule $100,000.00 budget."

Carl: "My brother lives in Norway. He says, 'I guess I'll never see that film.' And that was the first place it opened overseas."

Luke: "What's your brother doing in Norway?"

Carl: "His wife is Norwegian. He was an attorney here. The only way he could work there was to learn the language, so he started teaching law. Now he's writing Norwegian law books.

"We worked on Hollywood Shuffle for two years. After the first year, Robert Townsend noticed that the little boy who was playing his brother Roy was getting older. So we realized that we had to finish. I was living in New York at the time and I'd fly to LA so we could shoot on the weekends. We started to panic because we were running out of his money.

"One day I was listening to talk radio as I drove from New York to New Jersey. And this guy talked about how he bought his dreamhouse. He said he had a good job and he had credit cards, he just didn't have the bulk money for the down payment. He got about 30 credit cards, and on each he took out a $3000 advance. And he ended up paying in full for the entire house. He then extracted the equity from the house to get a bank loan to pay back his credit cards.

"That's when I called up Robert. 'Dude, I've got an idea. Let's do it on credit cards. I see credit cards coming in your box all the time.' I explained the theory to him. He asked, 'What happens if nobody buys it?' I said, 'That's a chance we're going to have to take.'

"The last distributor that we looked at, Samuel Goldwyn, bought the film. Samuel Goldwyn told us, 'My gut tells me this is funny. I don't get it because I'm an old Jew.' The movie grossed about $8 million domestically.

"Our actors worked for two years without getting any money. So when we got the movie picked up, we had to pay them SAG wages. A lot of them were going to get into trouble with SAG because we'd never gotten releases. So with the attorneys from Samuel Goldwyn, we were sitting in a meeting with SAG. One. We had to get some people in the union. Two. We had to get people in the union out of trouble with the union.

"So we got permission. We said there hasn't been a black film in ages. Our attorneys said they wanted the low-budget rate for the actors. SAG said, 'Let us think about it.' We all get up and leave. Then Robert and I go back in the room and ask SAG to talk to them for a minute. 'These guys have worked long and hard. They've waited for their money. They should at least get the regular rate. We know that it is the right thing according to your rules but we don't agree with it.' So we ended up getting them the higher rate [about 30% higher].

"When the Samuel Goldwyn attorneys came back the next day and they were told they had to pay the actors the higher rate, the attorneys got mad. SAG said, 'Take it or leave it. The higher rate.' And then they started repeating what we'd said to them.

"HBO saw Hollywood Shuffle and asked Robert to do a special, Partners in Crime. We won an ACE award for it. After that, Robert went off to Jamaica to do The Mighty Quinn with Denzel Washington. Keenyan [Ivory Wayans] and I got together and made [the 1988 movie] I'm Gonna Git You Sucker."

Luke: "Are you happy making movies targeted at a black audience or would you rather branch out?"

Carl: "I'd rather branch out in two ways. One, I like universal humor. Two, I think that most of the comedy I've done in the past has been linear. It's usually someone running into money problems so they have to throw a party, like House Party III. The Players Club (1998) was about exploring power levels in a strip joint."

Dale Roberson writes on Imdb.com: "This is basically a black, very superior version of "Striptease" and "Showgirls." It's not as sexy as "Showgirls," but what I really looked for was a better plot. This had one. LisaRaye gave an impressive debut performance as a college student trying to make ends meet. Bernie Mac can make the most dramatic piece of dialogue into stand-up comedy with his extraordinary vocal strength and stamina. I was very impressed with Ice Cube, his writing-directing debut, because, honestly, I didn't know he was capable. I like how he staged the scenes and built suspense. The great thing about it is that there is a considerable amount of violence, but no one is killed. For once, a black film where everyone lives. Another thing, this movie has the best, most vicious catfight I have ever seen."

Carl: "No matter how big and powerful you think you are, you always answer to somebody else. That goes from the lowly stripper, the queen of all the strippers, who had to answer to owner Bernie Mac, who had to answer to the thug that loaned him the money for the place. It wasn't all about the sex and the stripping.

"I knew Ice Cube from my experience making videos with NWA (rap group Niggas With Attitude). They made a song years ago called 'F--- the Police.' That was how they got on the map. They couldn't perform that song in certain states or they'd get arrested.

"Hollywood Shuffle made me want to put out new actors. When I did House Party 3, I didn't want to use Bernie Mac because I'd used him in Mo' Money (1992). Chris Tucker made his debut in House Party 3. Ice Cube saw him in House Party and decided to use him in Friday (1995) where he blew up."

Luke: "Which of your movies have had the most meaning for you?"

Carl: "Between Hollywood Shuffle and The Players Club. In Players Club, the girl was struggling. She was being a stripper, going to school, and trying to make something out of her life. I always try to give audiences the message that no matter how hard it gets, you can fight through. I always try to bring a sense of heroism to the party. This film might've inspired one girl a little too much."

Luke: "What do you mean?"

Carl: "The movie says that you have to fight for your rights. When the movie came out, a young lady in Chicago was killed. You didn't hear much about it. The couple was walking out of the film. He called her a bitch and she stepped up and said you can't talk to me that way. And he killed her."

Luke: "Did you do a lot of research in strip clubs?"

Carl: "I did. All the way from Jamaica to Atlanta. It's all about power. I became knowledgeable and numb at the same time from going to strip clubs. I found that a lot of girls were going to school and trying to get out of the strip world but the money was too good. And beyond the money, it was the power they possessed over men. They couldn't give up the power. They loved to see the man's face drawn and the mouth open with desire and want. That was one image they couldn't get out of their mind.

"I learned how to turn strippers against strippers. Usually a stripper is empowered because she's got the booty. And when the guy goes in, the only power he has is the money. One day I was just screwing around. And when a girl asked me if I wanted a lap dance, I said no. But if she was pretty, I said, 'You sit right here. I'm going to get her to give you a lap dance.' Then I'd pay the other stripper to give her a lap dance. And I'd say, 'Now, close your eyes.' And I'm telling her what to do. And I'd use them against themselves."

Luke: "It's difficult to pick up a woman in a strip club."

Carl: "Exceedingly difficult because you are a john to them."

Luke: "Did you encounter girls who didn't want to give lap dances to black guys?"

Carl: "No. Green is the only color the girls are interested in.

"One club I went to in Atlanta got so desperate that they set up a little boxing ring and it was 'Knock a bitch out night.' Two strippers would put on the gloves and get in the ring, butt naked, and duke it out. None of them got hurt. But the idea was so repulsive. Titties flopping while they were trying to fight.

"It's the DJ's job to get people to spend. To invigorate it, he dropped the price to two lap dances for $5. 'Why the f--- is he going to say that sh--. I don't have any motherf---ing change.'"

Luke: "Most of the strip club chains are run by the mob."

Carl: "They are. They are the new pimps. The strip clubs are the new pimps. Some girls do farm out. Pimps and street walkers are a dying breed."

Luke: "What do you think are you strengths as a producer?"

Carl: "When I work on a project, I envision it as an organic piece. My strength is to muster all the organic pieces and make them fit. I work with people and make them gell and get what I want out of them. Usually what happens when you do a picture is that producers and directors become parents and workers become kids. And they desperately jump up and down and say, 'See. See what I did today. See what I am going to do tomorrow.' You have to recognize that they need attention and you have to give it to them because it feeds them to give you more.

"I remember on The Players Club, I went to toe-to-toe with Ice Cube's partner [Patricia Charbonnet] from the beginning to three weeks into shooting. It was exhausting. One of the people that the exec wanted in a key position, I didn't want. But she made me fire my guy for her guy. From that point on, we were bickering back and forth. And this guy that she wanted was a troublemaker. He was a pot stirrer. I don't believe in that.

"There are two different types of producers. Some like to keep you on the edge, thinking that you are going to lose your job. He tried his tactics on a crafts service girl, which almost started a riot on the set. He wanted to fire her. She told the other crew people who came to me wanting to know what was going on. I knew the crafts service girl's husband had been diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the shoot. She was late several times setting up. It annoyed that guy.

"I said to her, 'What do you need to make this work? Do you need to bring on an assistant?' I kept her on and I gave her another person to help her out. He wanted to fire her. I said, 'Dude, this is a movie we're making. We're not curing cancer. The more you have people with good vibes the more the picture will be successful. People can feel the energy and love that you put into it.'

"From that beat, the executive producer [Patricia Charbonnet] came to me and said, 'Ohmigod, I was so wrong about you. I see now how the crew loves you.' She took me out to dinner, Dom Perrignon, flowers and the whole nine yards. We buried the hatchet.

"I turned over all the financial stuff to the guy she insisted we hire. I said to her, 'Either he's the best guy in the world at handling money or you are over-budget.' And it turned out that we were over by $400,000 in a $5 million picture.

"When I did House Party 3, the director shot his whole wad in the first week of film. I get a call from New Line screaming at me. 'Either you get this under control or we will assigned somebody who will.' So I go to the director and ask him how he feels about the first week. He says he feels good.

"Then I say, 'Here's something I've always wanted to ask you. Who are some of the directors you admire?' He named Stan Latham among others. I called Stan. I asked for his help. I told him the situation. Stan comes over on Monday. 'Hey man, congratulations on your first movie. So what are you shooting today? Do you have a shot list I can see.' The director says, 'No, I do not have a shot list.'

"Stan reams him. You've got to have a shot list. And by the time it was all over, the next day, the director had a shot list and everything was under control. The director came from music video land. He felt like he could shoot all day.

"I knew the director wouldn't listen to me. Directors often think of the producer as their adversary.

"Editing can make or break a film. Music can sell a movie. It can lift you, take you down and swoop you around. What many first-time directors don't understand is that I am not paying $9 to see a mastershot, a medium shot and a close-up. I am paying for you to fuck with my head for 90-minute emotionally. I want you to make me laugh. I'm paying you for a psychological rollercoaster ride. And by the time it is all over, I want to feel strong and good. When you boil it all down, you're selling emotions. The pictures you put together should sell emotional beats and nothing more.

"That's why when M. Night did The Sixth Sense, all of those shots were long shots. He didn't bounce around with six different angles. He just sat there. And you got sucked into it. It worked for what he was trying to sell emotionally. Approach each scene in terms of what you are selling. When you sit down with your DP (Director of Photography), say I want to create a sadness with the scene. How can we light it? What angle will give us that?"

Luke: "What's the most desperate thing you've ever done to finish a movie?"

Carl: "I came close but I didn't do it. We came close to somebody coming off a plane with a brown paper bag filled with money to start a low-budget film I was doing with one of my video directors. He came to me and said, 'My family has the money.' We did one week of filming and I'm about $60,000 in debt. His family didn't come through. He says, 'I didn't want to tell you this but I know this guy out of New York. He sells things. Like? He sells drugs. So we've got drug money. Our last resort is to have this man go to his backyard and shovel some drug money out of the ground. Yes.

"We're up to $75,000. We start calling everybody [for money]. I went to Keenyan [Ivory Wayans]. 'Keenyan, I've got this lovely little film. It's only $300,000. We're already filming.' I send him the script. He calls me back. 'It is funny. I like it. Carl, I'd love invest in it but in this business, you use other people's money.' I broke up uncontrollably. I said, 'You are the other people now. Don't you get it? You are in the million dollar zone. I'm not. You're doing all the TV shows.'

"I went after a lot of the talent that had crossed over. You could hear it in their tone. I said to the director, 'Get your guy on the phone. We may need to send a shovel to his house.' Finally, we found another investor. A group of girls married to pro athletes who wanted to get into the film business.

"It's a cute film about the director's life, split into three guys.

"All my films have made money. I look at myself as a meter, as an emotional string. I reflect what the masses feel. I have a strong sense of empathy.

"Robert Townsend and I went our separate ways in 1988. Now we're talking about working together again. He has to stay in touch with what people want and instead of a fantasy world. We work together well. A lot of our best moments in our films he wanted to take out.

"I just saw Undercover Brother. I was disappointed. It wasn't based on reality. It relied too much on racial humor. A movie can't survive on drawing differences between the brothers and the white man. It's like Tom Hanks in Money Pit. The whole movie was based around one thing - that the house he bought was always sucking up money."

Kate Coe writes: I worked with Carl Craig on the very short-lived ICE-TV, which was a talk show for HBo starring Ice-T. Carl was the best--the show was way too radical and strange for HBO, and eventually ended up on Britain's Channel 4.