Of the scores of screenwriters who might have authored the story of gangsta rap on the big screen, Jonathan Herman is not the most intuitive candidate.
A self-described "white Jewish gay guy from Connecticut," Herman had no inside knowledge of the hip-hop world, and in fact had no produced writing credits to his name at all, as recently as late 2013.
But when Universal Pictures and producer Scott Bernstein needed a writer for the N.W.A biopic "Straight Outta Compton," they turned to Herman, hoping he could straighten out what had become a hash under multiple other scribes. There was a ticking clock -- the script had to be completely redone in a matter of months so the production could make a tax-credit deadline.
"I think the studio wanted a heavy hitter, an A-list Steve Zaillian-type, but all those people were like 'I don't want to write this in two months,'" laughed Herman, 42, a gregarious sort with an honest streak. "And then they said 'why not this Hail Mary with someone new?'"
It was the beginning of a sprint that had the writer throwing back gin 'n juices with Dr. Dre at the rapper's home just a few weeks later, then turning in a full rewrite six weeks after that.
This weekend, moviegoers will get the chance to see the product of Herman’s frenetic efforts. As directed by F. Gary Gray, "Straight Outta Compton" tells the origin story of the late-'80s South-Central hip-hop trio N.W.A, comprising Andre Young (known as Dre), O'Shea Jackson (Ice Cube) and Eric Wright (the late Eazy-E) and the colorful and complicated figures around them including DJ Yella, manager Jerry Heller and Death Row Records founder Marion "Suge" Knight.
The packed script centers on the explicit, groundbreaking group and its personal rivalries, artistic evolution and culture-wars battles, particularly over the nature of their raps as a form of American expression. By following a multiplicity of characters and story lines, it becomes the rare Hollywood movie potentially to feel too short at 2 hours, 20 minutes; more time or fewer stories seem to be called for.
(Gray's earlier version of the film is 3 1/2 hours long, and it's possible a good chunk of the cutting-room footage will be available on a later DVD release.) Herman met with Dre, Cube and, to a lesser extent, Eazy-E widow Tomica Woods-Wright to make the movie; he did not confer with Knight.
As a child, Herman loved movies, cutting out the ads in the New York Times. But he had few contacts in the business when he moved to Los Angeles several years after graduating from Tufts University in the mid-1990s.
He spent years as an assistant, eschewing classes or even screenwriting books in favor of a more practical education: poring over hundreds, even thousands, of scripts that would cross his desk for coverage purpose. When he was laid off from one such job and decided to make a go of it as a struggling screenwriter. As recently as 2008 he was delivering Indian food on the weekends so he could work on specs during the week, an odd job he held for more than two years.
Herman caught a break when a few scripts he wrote -- a revenge thriller called "Rites of Men" and a bank heist movie titled "Conviction" -- sold, putting him on the radar of Hollywood and Universal in particular. The studio and former executive Bernstein were open to him trying his hand at a movie that had seen earlier versions by Andrea Berloff, Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus fail to make the mark.
Herman's background is undeniably of the genteel sort. Raised in an upper-middle class family in Greenwich, Conn., Herman listened to hip-hop like N.W.A and Public Enemy in high school, along with classic rock and other forms of music. His father was a high-ranking sales executive at Toys 'R Us, and he and his two sisters had a comfortable upbringing.
This is not, he said, an entirely bad thing when it comes to the film.
"I think the fact that I'm a different demographic, different ethnically and socioeconomically, to the entire world of this movie, maybe that was an advantage writing it in a commercially expansive way for other audiences." In a quintessentially American twist, hip-hop went mainstream in part with the help of swaths of upper-middle-class suburban white kids, and there's something symbolic about one of them now helping to tell the story, together with a more insider voice like Gray.
"I could never pretend to know what life is like in the inner city or to be black or to be poor or to come from a broken home because I didn't have any of that," said Herman. But he had other experiences that suited him to tell the at-times tragic tale, including a father who died after a long battle with Alzheimer's nearly a decade ago and a mother who died of cancer while he was working on the movie. His homosexuality, he said, gave him an outsider feeling that he used to channel the story of some kids from the inner city
In reviving a charged story, “Compton” arrives on screen with a wave of good reviews -- and no shortage of controversy and competing narratives. The script highlights both the power of, and problems with, a writer trying to make sense of a tangled recent history.
All fact-based stories come with ambiguities. But a story like this is especially thorny.
“A lot of biopics have — I don’t know if I’d call it a benefit ... OK, let’s call it a benefit — of their subject no longer being alive, so you can spin a mythology around them. Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or James Brown — you can find the texture in the story and tell it how you want,” Herman said. “And here a lot of them are not only alive but larger than life, and at the peak of their game.”
There were disagreements about Wright's back story filtered one way by Dre, who knew him from the early days, and Woods-Wright, who was married to him and has been a steward of his legacy. There was haggling over equal time; if one character got his due with the scene of the birth of a baby, another might have wanted one too. Praise everyone and you praise no one, an axiom Herman found himself staring down in trying to tell this story (and that Gray in the edit room would face anew).
Though reviews have been strong, there has been criticism that the film goes easy on the rappers' treatment of women — a development that's possibly due to Dre's and Cube's involvement as producers — and casts a softer-hued look at their characters in general.
Herman said he doesn't buy the criticisms.
"I don't see how the movie would have been better if it had started addressing these issues and said straight-out they sometimes treated women like a piece of meat back then, or explain to the world why they were misogynist. This was the culture they came from and just the way it was to them," he said. A similar subjective point of view is at work, he said, in the portrayal of the police, who are seen exclusively from the point of view of the rappers as bullies and tormentors, in some of the film's most blood-boiling scenes.
Herman also waves aside the suggestion that the movie's potrayal of Heller, whom Ice cube infamously cast as a Shylock figure in his song "No Vaseline," could side with or stoke support for the rapper's view.
"Jerry has remorse and contrition and goes through every emotional cycle in the movie in a way that makes me much more comfortable with the whole thing; he isn't the shady Jew who ripped off the black kids," Herman said.
Still, Herman is careful to draw a distinction between written word and finished film--the latter of which left out scenes in previous iterations--particularly when it comes to the misogyny issue. "There is a lot more that might have provided context or assuaged people, and it will be interesting when the DVD comes out how people might feel. There's a richer version in which it's maybe not as one-sided in showing the women as either simply supportive partners or tossed aside."
And he acknowledges there may be a correlation between some characters' involvement with the film and the gentleness with which they're treated on screen.
"I think maybe that's why Eazy-E comes off as a richer soul," he said. "It's been 20 years since he died, and that makes it easier to be super-honest about him. At times he seems the most humanized out of all of them."
As for Knight, arrested earlier this year on suspicion of murder after a fatal hit-and-run accident, Herman went with a more secondhand form of research, for a characterization that can be as effective as it is intimidating -- and perhaps not as ... favorable as some of the other personalities. "It does make me a little nervous that Suge's people are going to see this and say 'who wrote this;' maybe we should pay him a visit," Herman said ruefully.
The screenwriter is next working on a new take for a reimagined "Scarface," and he's eager to see the thematic parallels -- the story of ethnic or racial minorities struggling to make it by going outside the system and its conventions.
"It might seem a little strange, but the transition kind of makes sense. Our Tony [Montana] is similar to the guys in N.W.A. He's seizing the opportunity to making it how he can. It's an American dream story," Herman said. He paused. "I guess I just like those stories. Beause all these years later we're still figuring out what the ... it means to be American."