PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Charles Stone III sits at a long table in one of those fancy hotel “meeting rooms.” He smiles immediately. “The kitchen is right there,” he nods to the right. “So there’s some noise.” He’s attentive to these kinds of details, really, all kinds of details. Once best known as the guy whose 1999 short film, True led to the ubiquitous “Whassuup” ad campaign and a lucrative contract with Budweiser, Philadelphia native Stone comes to filmmaking with a range of experience and a lifetime love of movies. A 1988 graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, with a Fine Arts Degree in animation, he’s also directed music videos for Living Colour, Vernon Reid, PM Dawn, and the Roots (“Distortion to the Static,” “Concerto of the Desperado,” the groundbreaking “You Got Me,” and the superb “The Next Movement”). His first feature film, Paid in Full, starred Wood Harris as a drug dealer in ‘80s Harlem, and treated this well-worn genre with unusual sensitivity and ingenuity.
The 36-year-old director’s new film, Drumline, follows Devon (Nick Cannon), a dazzlingly talented drummer who learns, over the course of his first year with Atlanta A&T’s marching band, to channel his individual gifts toward the good of his team. The film is winning kudos from all corners for its undeniable energy and charm, as well as fine performances by, among others, Orlando Jones as Dr. Lee, Devon’s band coach, and Leonard Roberts as his teammate and rival, Sean. It’s easy to see where all this comes from: Stone is obviously happy to be talking movies, drums, and details.PopMatters:
What brought you to Drumline? Charles Stone III: I never thought, “I wanna make a movie about drummers,” to be honest. And when it was first presented to me, the protagonist went to a school out in the Midwest, and it didn’t have the kind of impact I wanted. But when he was at a black college down South, with the traditional show style drumming, that caught my eye. And then also, witnessing it in person moved me. They have this really intense sense of athleticism, choreography, and rhythms—it’s all so dynamic. It rang like a sports movie, because the characters are like superheroes to me, like warriors, athletes, gymnasts, and musicians, all wrapped up into one. I wanted to get that kind of power on screen, that discipline, that allegiance to the teamwork.
There are a lot of scenes in it that are stereotypical of sports movies, but for me that was important to have that, because it’s not a football or basketball team, so those generic moments twist what you expect. As long as the spirit was true, I wasn’t worried about clichéd shots. And I think the story of an underdog appeals to everyone, despite the cultural specificity.PM:
And it emphasizes drumming per se, not just the more obviously spectacular stick twirling, dancing, and other athletic moves.CS:
In anything I do, as much as I love eye candy and effects—I grew up on those movies—they can’t be the driving force. It was important that the characters had some weight to them and that the musicianship was a means to show that. We talked to musical directors from various schools, and they had concerns about that too. The bands have an incredibly deep repertoire of music, everything from classical to classic rhythm and blues to contemporary r&b and hiphop. And one major dramatic license we took was to split the styles of the two bands. So, we had one band that was sensational and playing contemporary music, and the other that was conservative and all about musicianship and technique. But all the bands I’ve witnessed that do this show style, do it all. They’re like what gospel music is to traditional choir music.PM:
Like Paid in Full, this film works within a genre, but stretches it too.CS:
Dig it. I think that inclination is a reflection of who I am and what I’ve been exposed to, growing up—from Warner Brothers cartoons from the ‘40s or Star Wars, or opera, or taking pottery class when I was 8 years old, and fencing, there are so many different things, even a range of types of music in the household where I grew up. I also had strategies.
For Paid in Full, number one, I wanted to get started in the film business, and I didn’t have any screenplays of my own or stories I wanted to get developed. And there were certain things about Paid in Full that appealed to me, for instance, that it was based on a true story. And secondly, it was about how young men deal with power. These three guys search for it, each in a different way. I thought, okay, this is a movie about three young black men selling drugs in Harlem in the early ‘80s, directed by a music video director. I thought, this is a perfect cliché package, and would give me a chance to really flip it. Originally, I had ideas that were even more surreal, and the producer [Damon Dash] and I butted heads a lot. You see some of that in the film, but I think what’s coming out in my work, in a natural way, is a respect for the human spirit.
In Drumline, it’s also about looking for power, for Devon, who sees himself as a great solo drummer as opposed to a team player. There are so many things in the film that appeal to me, drawn from other sources. There’s combat imagery, like when the bands are battling and Dr. Lee is watching through the binoculars. I designed that so it looked like two battleships in the ocean, with the commander calling in orders: “Send in a lob of missiles in off the port bow.” And then in the end battle, it was like Kung Foo meets the Transformers. The sister with the cymbals! And then it’s like the dozens, being able to berate somebody without coming to blows, without crossing that line. So much was in my head. I’m a Star Trek fan too, so, for the five-yard space, between the two bands, I told them that was the Neutral Zone. And if they passed into the Neutral Zone, they had to be prepared that the Klingons would come at you.
And the guys who were designing the cadences, we were in a rush to get them completed before shooting that final scene. And the guy from Morris Brown College came to me like three days before that scene, he said he had come up with new ones. And wanted to see it, because all those cadences are like four to six minutes, elaborate stories in their own way. I had to get it down to a minute, maybe a minute and 25 seconds, but he presented this idea where he wanted one team to use the other team’s snare line. I was like, “That’s so perfect, the perfect test for Devon.” And things just fell into place.PM:
How has working on music videos affected your sensibility, or prepared you for making films?CS:
Number one: comfort in working with the medium of film, with the structure of a large crew, designating responsibilities, communicating with an assistant director. That’s not to say that making a video prepares you fully for 45 days of shooting a movie, but it helps. The other thing is, you become sensitive to storytelling. Learning the language of filmmaking, understanding how shots tell the story, that’s important. And the editing in music video making helped me, in the sense that, for me there’s a rhythm to everything, a pace and a tempo. So, cutting dialogue can be like cutting a video.
For instance, in Paid in Full, I didn’t do it a lot, since we didn’t have any time for rehearsal, and I couldn’t work with the actors to develop the lyrical dialogue that I wanted. We got some of it in the first scene, where the three of them are talking, eating Chinese food, and throwing that paper in the trashcan. That happened in a spontaneous fashion, and we did a lot of pushing a pulling to achieve a poeticism in the way they speak with one another. The slang is so incredible, and it’s so much fun. My short film, True, is all about that—the air time, the pacing. I wanted so desperately to bring that to Paid in Full, and it does happen periodically. It happens according to the characters, too, like Rico, played by Cam’ron. He’s so nervous and bizarre and repeats his lines, “Whatever you need, let me know.” I enjoyed how he was next to someone like Mitch, Mekhi Phifer’s character, or even Ace [Wood Harris], even more introverted and kind of motionless.
But I didn’t get to make it dance the way I wanted to, throughout. When you do a feature film, it’s so much bigger. Doing a music video is like putting together a puzzle. Doing a film is like putting together Rubik’s Cubes, every time you move something it affects every other angle. It’s hard maintaining focus for such a long period of time, while Murphy’s Law is always throwing something in your lap.
And you work with actors who have their own personalities and opinions and they’re putting on their uniforms and trying to get comfortable with themselves and each other, and reacting to their characters, and I have to react to that. I try not to micromanage actors, at least not at this point, since I didn’t write the characters. It’s such an organic process, chemical reactions and spiritual things going. For these first two films, I’ve kind of sit and watch people get used to the long-johns and get right, and then I go with it and push and pull to help them along.PM:
It sounds like you talk a lot with actors, then.CS:
Yeah, I used to do theater, when I was at Rhode Island School of Design. I majored in animation, but I also did a lot of stage work next door at Brown University. And I did standup comedy.PM:
Is there something you haven’t done?CS:
[laughs] Yeah, I know. There is, actually, I don’t have a bartending license, and I want to do that. I just recently learned how to drive a motorcycle but I don’t own one. And I never played lacrosse. Yet.
But I have sensitivity to actors putting themselves out there. And you sort of can’t help but have that when you work with them—like most everyone else, they’re incredibly opinionated and insecure. They want you to tell them what to do and they want to do their thing. It’s a fascinating process. Every experience is different. Like when I worked with Chi McBride on Paid in Full, he’s really a stand-up, classy person. And he would make suggestions, and ask to try things this way. Others would go through the script and say, “I’m not gonna do that. I won’t say that.” It’s all good, but everyone has their own way of working. Nick Cannon and Orlando Jones were great on Drumline.PM:
Jones might surprise people in this film, if they don’t remember him from Liberty Heights. He’s so smart.CS:
Yeah, he’s a really smart cat. The big thing with his character was to play it down, so ordinary. And he was excited to play a teacher, since his father is a teacher and coaches college ball. And we worked on keeping it simple. One example I always bring up is that scene when he says, “What are you, Beavis and Black-head?” Originally, he did it with a smile, and I said, “Be serious when you drop the joke.” People are waiting for Orlando Jones to make a joke. And it’s funny, at every screening I’ve been to—and that’s a lot—everyone laughs when Orlando first comes on screen. And then they realize he’s not going to do what he usually does, and people are walking out going, “Gee, he’s really good.” It’s a shame that he’s been stuck in these extreme comedy roles. I’m so happy for him that people are seeing him differently.PM:
His role as the teacher who learns something makes me think of the complicated way the generations are delineated in Drumline. Usually, the split in “teen” or “college” movies is so broad and ridiculous. The music works so brilliantly here.CS:
There’s a generation gap between Dr. Lee and Devon, and it’s such a classic argument [affecting crotchety voice]: “When I was your age the music was so much better than the shit you’re listening to now.” And I used to joke about that, but now I think, the r&b music today sucks!PM:
[laughs] I noticed the R. Kelly dis at the beginning of the film.CS:
[laughs] Yeah! I had to slide a jab in there for real. I wanted to use that song, “You Remind Me of My Jeep,” but it wasn’t as popular as “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Here, Devon reflects a different new school, with hiphop and a new art of improvisation and sampling. We had scenes between Dr. Lee and Devon where they go at it about sampling and hiphop versus rhythm & blues of the past. We did a lot of digging into that to come to where we are now, which is minimal in suggesting that debate between past and present. One way we did that was, as I said before, was to divide the bands, new school and conservative. But for Dr. Lee and Devon to come together is like bringing those sounds together as one band.
And the reading music and not being able to read and write music is another dimension to that. I’ve had people come out of the screening and say, “I thought that was so cool that he could only play by ear.” There are a million great musicians who don’t read. One of my favorite drummers, Dennis Chambers does not know how to read or write music, and he’s a bad drummer. I love that there’s no judgment: one is not only right, the other is not only right. I believe in learning how to read and write music, and expanding on that. I got that in art in high school, from an amazing teacher. Before I met him, I was in to drawing everything from comic books. In his class, we went through everything from the Renaissance to Abstract Expressionism to Futurism and Dada, Pop, the whole thing. This was in the 9th grade. I got so open to it, that it’s stuck with me. I tell kids, Don’t flip the birdie at history so quick, whether it’s correct or incorrect. Learn it, and then move on, because you can get something from it. Take what you need from it. You can expand your talent.
I asked some of the teachers we talked with if there are kids who can hide that they don’t read. And they said, yeah, there are kids who can listen to you play an entire complex cadence—once—and know it instantly. It’s such a neat thing.PM:
The scene where Devon is watching that one cadence and the film literally slows down to show he absorbs it…CS:
Yeah, just like that. It’s his process on screen.PM:
The other scene I liked for that, sort of in reverse, is when the note-reading machine transcribes the notes Devon’s playing, spits it out on paper, and that encourages him to want to read. The technology invites him to go back, to appreciate a skill he’s dismissed before.CS:
Cool. I wanted to shoot additional scenes that explained how that machine works. These machines are attached to the head of the drum and when you hit it, they record what you play and then turn it into written music. I wanted that show where you hear this intense drumming and see the notes being written out. I was worried that someone like Sean using the computer would look like the short cut. But because Sean is already established as someone who can read and write, and play, he’s serious. But you’re right, ironically, that scene brings them together, and invites Devon back into playing for the team. That’s cool, the intellectual side.PM:
That’s your job now, as the director.CS:
Yes, to pretend! It’s like when that thing when the guys drum on the other guys’ skins. That was a wonderful accident. I think that it’s part of being a director, to be able to see things happen. You have to let spontaneity and chaos live with you, and be able to pick and choose.