When it comes to making movies, it’s usually not a straight line from when a script first sees the light of day until it hits the screen. And this can definitely be said for “Straight Outta Compton,” the N.W.A biopic that’s getting ready to hit theaters with a combination of organic buzz and a fairly hefty marketing campaign. There’s an air of anticipation that surrounds the film for several reasons.
First of all, telling the story behind N.W.A is no easy feat. All the members in the group (not to mention their spouses, girlfriends, music producers and executives, etc.) have their own viewpoint. One of the loudest and most sought after of those voices belongs to Eazy-E (Eric Wright), who died in 1995. Secondly, trying to recreate something with as many moving parts as the early days of hip hop—and doing it with authenticity—is a tricky task, to say the least. There are a host of reasons such as these—the real world perspective, so to speak, and that’s before you even get to navigating the sometimes murky waters of the movie business.
Hip Hop Roots
Bill Straus can attest to this and more. The film industry veteran has worked his way up through the ranks, starting out as an assistant at New Line before becoming an executive; he then began producing films and now has found a niche as a sales agent working primarily in the indie world.
Straus was the first person to see a script for the movie that became “Straight Outta Compton” back in 2004. Having grown up in Brooklyn in the early 1980s, his environment may not have suggested that he would develop an interest in gangsta rap or West Coast hip hop, but as he said, Straus and his friends were “just way ahead of the curve in terms of music. Even in Brooklyn people weren’t that tuned into what hip hop and rap music was yet to a point that we were into it. I think that kind of stayed with me.”
As hip hop and hip hop culture exploded in the early 1990s, Straus’ interest in the genres and the fusion of music and movies deepened. He became friends with filmmaker John Singleton, and the movies that Straus wanted to make were influenced by “Boyz n the Hood” (directed by Singleton), “New Jack City,” and “Menace II Society.” This carried over to his career in the business.
“So the reason that the script was submitted to me…I think I always aspired to making something like a ‘Boyz n the Hood’ or ‘Menace II Society,’” Straus said. “I like gangster movies, cool, tough guy stuff, so I think that’s why the script was sent to me and I also just kind of had that history and people knew that.”
For those that grew up around the time that N.W.A began changing the face of hip hop, it’s somewhat easy to understand their lasting impact. After all, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre went on to have influential careers in music and films. But it was also just a brief moment, because the original group splintered, and once record companies realized that they could make music on gangsta rap or hip hop, the market became flooded with the next generation of acts. And to some, N.W.A became more of a launching pad, an interesting footnote in history. But as Straus knows, you can’t do better than the original.
“I think that while some producers might not have recognized the cultural impact, I guess is the right word, or the phenomenon that N.W.A was—I kind of saw where it went from this esoteric thing at my high school to this thing being in every high school around the country and everybody was into music,” Straus said. “And this happened right around…like N.W.A almost contributed to that because that’s right around when everybody got into it. I think I recognized that and I understood what a dynamic movie it could be. And I feel like right now the excitement and the anticipation that seems to be surrounding it is what I always expected.”
From Rumblings to Reality – The Beginning of an 11 Year Ride
There have been rumblings of an N.W.A movie for years. But with personal conflicts between former group members, growing and fracturing musical empires to attend to, and the death of Eazy-E, it seemed it may never happen. The biggest obstacle though, seemed to be obtaining the musical rights.
“I was the first person the script was ever submitted to,” Straus said. “The movie that’s on the screen now I really can’t take credit for it. But what I can take credit for and it’s very profound is that we got the music rights, which was supposed to be impossible.”
Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow, did not want to give up the music rights. She had inherited Eazy’s label, Ruthless Records. And while other producers may have tried and failed to get Woods-Wright’s blessing (and the rights as well), the efforts all proved for naught. Straus’ connections in the film world proved invaluable. After he left New Line, he was working out of the offices of a company called Circle of Confusion. He was working as a sales agent in the indie world, and had begun going to Sundance. It was here that Straus met up with S. Leigh Savidge, one of the writers of the script that had been submitted to him.
“I said, ‘This is great, I like the script, but it’s kind of a non-starter,’” Straus said. “And he said, ‘I just did this documentary on Suge Knight called ‘Welcome to Death Row’ and I met some people who might be able to get us to some people who might be able to get us to some people who can get us to Tomica.’
So Straus, David Engel (another producer), and Savidge (who ended up with a story by credit in the final film) devised a strategy to try and meet Woods-Wright and begin the conversation. It was also a concerted effort to flesh out who Eazy-E was and how he would be portrayed in the script. It would not be easy, as Straus and his colleagues would discover.
“One person leads to one person leads to the next; she was like the white whale,” he said. “It was this dogged pursuit. Leigh was a documentarian and he was always out first. He’d go into meetings, and he was meeting sound engineers, and people who had small labels before Dre even hooked up with Eazy. He would go meet somebody and then he would come back and most of it would go towards getting a sense of Eazy. And he’d come back and we’d add the new details of the script, and then he’d go do another one and we’d add more details to the script, and the script just kept getting better and more focused on the Eazy-E character. Because our whole strategy was to get Eazy so spot on that Tomica would really recognize that. Because our understanding was that she was just very protective of his legacy.”
Two years had passed and the fleshed out script made its way to Woods-Wright and she liked it. Savidge met with her and they became friends, which led to a meeting.
“So finally after two years of this, she came into our office,” Straus said. “And at first she was kind of guarded, but it was a three hour meeting, and about an hour and a half in, she just opened up, she took off her shoes, she started crying, she was telling stories, and just kind of going on and on. It was almost like a therapy session as much as a meeting, just the way she opened up and how emotional it was. Soon after that, she attached her name to the script as a producer. With her blessing, we took it out to the studios.”
The Ride Continues
New Line optioned the movie. And Straus can take pride in the fact that he was the first one the script was submitted to and didn’t let it die on the table. He, along with Engel and Savidge accomplished what they had set out to do. Of course, in the film industry, it’s never that simple. New Line approached Ice Cube and Dr. Dre to be producers, and while Ice Cube was on board immediately, Dre didn’t become attached until only a few years ago. Ice Cube then took a role as one of the lead producers. Straus knows that’s all part of the business.
“From that point Cube kind of took over and kind of became the lead producer,” he said. “And that happens in Hollywood a lot. A lot of times it’s not fair, but this was a very different situation because the story is about Cube and he was already a more established movie producer than we were to begin with.”
Straus and his colleagues were still involved, although he says, “we were a little bit on the sidelines from the day it was sold.” They were involved in the meetings and in discussions with writers. When the deal finally came together, and they had director F. Gary Gray on board, New Line was absorbed into Warner Bros. Once again, this could have spelled the end to “Straight Outta Compton,” but it didn’t.
“All of a sudden we had different executives calling deciding whether to green light the film,” Straus said. “Ultimately Warner Bros. decided not to green light it, but Universal was kind of waiting in the wings. That’s kind of what happened in a nutshell.”
When all is said and done, what matters is that the movie has been made and people will get the chance to see for themselves what it all means. And for Straus, his involvement was very crucial. And while the movie may be different from the one that he envisioned, as more people became involved and Gray put his own stamp on it, he was the one who first saw it, first saw its potential, and decided that this was something to stick with.
“I think we really got it to a place where it could be realized,” he said. “I think there were a couple of points along the way where it could have died. But it didn’t. I think ‘Compton’ was a hard sell, and I’m known for taking on challenging stuff, and I kind of think that’s what ‘Compton’ was. I’m just really, really proud to be associated with it.”