‘Straight Outta Compton’ and the Cyclical Nature of Hollywood: An Interview With Bill Straus

Straight Outta Compton is one of the biggest movies of 2015, and Bill Straus, who got his start as a production assistant on Boyz n the Hood, was essential to making it happen. He shares his journey here.

Straight Outta Compton is one of the biggest hits of the 2015 summer, garnering both critical and commercial success. There is even a little bit of Oscar buzz about the film, which chronicles the rise and fall of rap group N.W.A.  The film has resonated with a wide range of audiences and its unflinching depiction of police brutality and oppression is especially relevant in a world where it seems like a person of color is brutalized by the police every day. 

N.W.A. played a vital role in the transformation of hip hop into a genre that dominates all aspects of life: from the radio waves, to fashion, to sports, as well as the vernacular of today’s youth. 

As Bill Straus informed me, it was a long road to get here. Bill Straus was one of the producers of the film and was instrumental in getting it made. He and others worked on the film starting in 2004. Hip-hop has tremendous importance for Straus, who grew up listening to the music and got his start as a production assistant on Boyz n the Hood

I had an engaging and enlightening phone chat with Straus that shed some interesting light on the process of making the film as well as the cyclical nature of Hollywood. Straus spoke of his hopes for a return to the golden era of black films in the ’90s.

* * *

Straight Outta Compton has been very successful at the box office, was this kind of in line with your expectations for the film?

I always thought that it could the same kind of business as 8 Mile, which was really successful at the box office as well. I always did feel the film would strike a chord commercially. In some ways, I’m not that surprised by how well it’s doing. What has been a surprise is some of the critical response and some of the awards talk this early, like I could not picture myself potentially at the Kodak Theatre in March. And there’s been some talk of that already, which would be incredible, obviously. That aspect of it has been the bigger surprise for me. I’ve always understood the sort of profound place that N.W.A. sat in the cultural zeitgeist, if you will.

What is it about N.W.A. that resonates so strongly with so many people?

I think you’ve got a couple things happening that has informed what’s happened commercially. I think you have a whole generation of people, probably in their 30s and 40s who bought the album when they were kids and have an incredible affinity for the album. I’ve met people across all racial and social strata who have emphatically told me about what happened in their lives and how much N.W.A. meant to them. It could be anybody from a guy from Japan or a kid who grew up in the suburbs in Kansas City, to somebody who grew up in South Central. I think they had a deeply personal effect on people across the globe.

The other thing is, for the younger generation, the music and images are exciting. I think that has to do with counter programming and the glut of summer superhero movies or giant action movies, you know at a certain point, what more can they do. And this is just something that’s completely different. Based on the music and based on the energy, is going to respond to young people.

And then I think there’s sort of a third generation, older than the people who bought N.W.A. records, who are curious based on the political, you know the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how it just completely coincides with what’s going on with this national conversation. So I think a lot of things have come together to make it even more successful that 8 Mile.

I especially think that along with increased awareness of police brutality, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. I think that’s one reason people have responded so strongly, because there’s some imagery from the film that definitely resonates, it almost seems ripped directly from the headlines of today.

I’ve been part of this project from the very beginning, because the first script was submitted to me and it’s just part of N.W.A.’s story, the issue of police brutality as it relates to kids growing up in South Central, L.A. It was always going to be a part of this story and it was just sort of a coincidence in a way that the headlines when the film came out were about what was going on in L.A. in the ’80s. So it was always going to be a part of the story no matter when the film came out.

What were some of the challenges of making a film about a group in which some of the members are still living and some of them are deceased?

My involvement was myself, one of the original writers, and David Engel, who I was working with at the time. Who’s the other E.P. on the card with me. We sort of accomplished what was supposed to be impossible by getting the music rights from Eazy-E’s widow. I think for her, it really sort of had to be the right time. We had heard from different places that tried to get the rights to the N.W.A. story. Tomica [Woods-Wright] was not comfortable with letting them use it. I think a lot had to do with honoring someone in the right way and honoring his legacy. And her feeling an enormous sense of responsibility about protecting his legacy.

It’s sort of a long story but through six degrees of separation, got to her, but it took us two years. And we had to go to someone who knows her who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew her. And each successive interview, we tailored the script to make it something that was more on target from her perspective about Eric Wright, Eazy-E. That was a real challenge and it took us two years and it really was a profound part of what got this film made. That’s sort of my big contribution. I was less involved in the production as it were than setting it up for the movie to actually be made. And you couldn’t obviously make this movie without the music rights.

I think [Ice] Cube and [Dr.] Dre … Dre took a long, long time to come aboard. He didn’t come aboard until two years ago. We sold the film to New Line in 2006. We started on trying to get the music rights in 2004. And the day we sold it, Cube came in, and I think Cube came in out of a sense of responsibility that the film was done correctly. Originally the story was more about the Eazy-E/Jerry Heller aspect and the AIDS story. Cube when he came in, we made it a bigger story about all of them.

I think it’s a better film because of the scope and the way it follows, Dre, Cube, and Eazy-E. I think that Dre was similarly concerned about the legacy and that’s why it took him forever to come in. And my understanding is Cube had to work really hard to convince him. Ultimately, he was able to convince Dre they’d do it the right way. Dre was like, “Our legacy is already great, why potentially do something that could only tarnish it.” But he eventually came around and I think he’s glad.

You talk about how the focus was initially on Eazy-E/Heller relationship, and it feels like that’s the A story, the other parts are important, but you start the film with Eazy-E and the film comes to an end with the death of Eric Wright. It’s a fairly lengthy film, there was a scene in early drafts of the script depicting Dr. Dre’s assault of Dee Barnes. I know you’ve talked about it with NPR, what reason did that not make the film?

I wasn’t privy to those decisions at that point. So it’s really hard for me to speak to it. I saw in the earliest versions of the script and F. Gary Gray said he saw it in the earliest one he saw. I think that’s just sort of the editorial process. I don’t really know the answer to that question, so I don’t want to speculate really.

You mentioned kind of a lengthy process of meeting with Tomica, to get the rights to N.W.A.’s music and getting her side of the story and Eric’s side of the story. What was the research process like for the screenwriters?

At that point, from 2004-2006, Leigh Savidge, he was one of the original writers, had done a movie called Welcome to Death Row on Suge Knight. And that was sort of the whole reason we were able to get to Tomica. I had lunch with him at Sundance 2004 and I said, “Look, I like your script and everything, but my friend from 40 Acres and A Mule, Spike Lee’s company, told me it was impossible to get the music rights, they had tried. A couple other big producers had tried. Rumor was it people in the group had tried.” Leigh had a connection, like I was talking about the six degrees of separation.

So what we would do is go meet with someone and we just sort of add little nuances about Eric and Eric and the relationship with Jerry Heller. They had some conversations with Heller at some point, I think before we saw the script. It was just people that knew Eazy-E at different junctures, from the earliest days to the final days. I think it only colored the narrative more and more. So that it got to the point where we finally got to Tomica’s closer confidantes who got her the script it was close enough that it worked for her.

We had stuff in there about Eric and Tomica’s courting and some of that probably helps. The story had been a little bit more about the HIV and him finding a girl that was good for him. So we had some of their courting and him becoming a one-woman kind of guy. I don’t remember all the little details, to be honest, it was a long time ago now. But that’s some of what’s coming back to me.

Was there anyone who was not happy about their portrayal on screen? I could see Jerry Heller maybe being a little upset.

I know as much as you do, to be honest. I’ve read a few things from Heller. I don’t know if I’ve read anything since he’s seen the movie. I’d read that he was going to wait to pass judgment until he’s seen it. I can’t imagine he’s going to be thrilled, but again, that’s also speculation. I also think there are some scenes where he’s portrayed evenly. I think that scene in Torrence, that scene at the sound studio, where the cops confront them. And Heller says, “You can’t just arrest these guys because they’re black.”

I think he’s kind of sympathetic in places. There’s points in the movie where you like him. I think it’s a fairly balanced portrayal of him. I think that’s a credit to F. Gary Gray and Jon Herman. Even when the guy is waiting outside his house, you’re kind of scared for Jerry, unless you want that guy to beat him up. I think in some ways he’s going to be upset, but in some ways he’s a three dimensional character.

You kind of began your career as a production assistant on Boyz n the Hood; how did that influence your interest in getting Straight Outta Compton made?

I was a teenager in New York City in the early ’80s and I was around it when, [hip-hop] left the Bronx. I was always kind of influenced by it as a teenager. You know, some kids grow up and they’re into comic books, some kids grow up, they’re into baseball, I grew up sort of into b-boy, that kind of stuff. And when I got to college, I met John Singleton and we were friends. And I had some friends, nowadays nobody knows them, but at the time, if you were into rap, you thought these guys were really cool. So I brought John to their album party.

I think your question was how Boyz n the Hood influenced me, but those influences were already there. It would have been disingenuous to go off and have a career that didn’t incorporate those influences in some respect. I have other projects that have nothing to do with rap music, but that was always sort of my niche: rap music and film. I always kind of wanted to do it in an elevated way. Actually, the Paul Dano movie [Weapons] is a good example, that movie was at Sundance in 2007. People called it Boyz n the Hood-meets-Larry Clark. It wasn’t Boyz n the Hood that influenced me as much as the earlier influences.

How has Hollywood changed in the time between Boyz n the Hood and Straight Outta Compton?

I’m kind of hoping that it’s come full circle, because that was a really exciting time for these kind of films, because you had Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City, Spike Lee’s golden era. You had Menace II Society, Friday. It was kind of a golden age. Someone said Fear of a Black Hat which may be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. So that was a golden age and then I was an executive at New Line and then I was a producer for a long time and it just felt like somewhere in the late ’90s people just kind of lost interest in doing movies like that. It kind of became ghettoized for a lack of a better word, there was no thought that they could crossover.

In the last four years, I’ve moved to the indie world, which I’ve found just to be enlightened, as opposed to the studio world as I’ve explained. And now I’m a sales agent and some of that was a little out of the frustration of the superhero movies becoming what everybody wanted. To me, I feel like Hollywood has contracted and they just kind of always default to the lowest common denominator. That might be the wrong word, but the safest films for them to make to keep their jobs. That’s why Compton is so successful, because we have all these summer movies that are so monolithic, and that’s a big reason why Compton has been so successful, because it’s so different.

There’s probably going to be a wave of copycats coming out, of movies that want to be like Straight Outta Compton, that people are making because of the success. And hopefully the people behind them or the studios behind them have an inkling, of a tidbit of a clue of what they’re doing, because they’re not going to work if they’re not done right. I do, at the same time, look forward to it and look forward to seeing the way this will probably influence decisions out there.