Brother From Another Suburb : Tyger Williams’ Visit to South-Central Inspired Gritty ‘Menace’
Tyger Williams hasn’t slept in 25 hours and his eyelids look a little heavy.
“I was wired up a while ago,” he says. “I had three cups of coffee this morning. I got some NoDoze in my back pocket. I got a lot to do. I can’t go to sleep for about another 12 hours.”
Williams, 24, hasn’t adjusted time-wise from being in France, where the first film he wrote, “Menace II Society,” was screened during the Cannes Film Festival. But who needs to get back on Pacific Daylight Time if you’re not sleeping?
“I’ve been known to just go on 30-hour writing sprees. I’m writing a lot right now. But it feels good to write. It’s a release.”
Working hours like that--and being hounded by the-20-year-old twin directors Allen and Albert Hughes--Williams wrote the script to “Menace” in 28 days over six weeks. He and the twins had developed the story together, but Williams has the sole screenwriter credit. The film was released nationwide by New Line Cinema May 26.
“When the twins first told me about it, they basically had a shell. They pretty much knew the theme, they knew they wanted it to be a tragedy, they knew they wanted to use a voice-over element. It was pretty loose at that point,” he says.
Williams developed a cast of characters that includes tragic hero Caine (Tyrin Turner), young single mother Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), hair-trigger O-Dog (Larenz Tate), and their posse.
“For me being a writer’s like being schizophrenic,” Williams says. “You’ve got to keep five separate characters in your head. And they’re five separate personalities with separate lives. . . . I have to be conscious of that every time I make one move, every time I make one speak.”
The most wrenching scene for Williams to write was where Caine visits Pernell, who had been his mentor on the streets and is now serving a life sentence in prison.
“As I started writing it, I started crying like halfway through. It wasn’t me anymore, it was them. They were talking and I was just an innocent bystander wrapped up in what they were saying,” he says.
“Menace II Society” is steeped in harsh social and emotional realism drawn from the streets of Watts, Compton and South-Central Los Angeles. While many of the events are true-to-life, Williams is the first to admit they aren’t necessarily drawn from his life.
Williams was born in West Covina and went to high school in Claremont. His father, now retired, was an administrator for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. His mother works for the state government.
“I’m a suburban child,” he says. “People always ask me, being from my background, how could I write a script like this? For me, basically the things that any black male in America goes through are the same, whether you’re raised in Bel-Air or you’re raised in Watts.”
But to guarantee the story’s authenticity, he and the Hughes brothers spent some time in South-Central.
“We talked to a couple of kids. . . . At your best days, at your worst days, what’s it like? And they filled us in,” Williams says. “Guys have told us stories where cops have actually snatched people up, taken them out and beaten them. There’s been stories where one guy was saying that he’s had a cop come and tell him where a rival gang member is, say such-and-such, he’s over there on that corner, why don’t you go blow him away?”
The script, he says, summed up all the anger and frustration he ever felt.
“When I went down and hung out in Watts, I saw all that I had boiled up inside me--all that despair--was just running rampant in everybody,” Williams says.
Art did imitate life in some less tragic ways. One character, Stacey, is offered a football scholarship to play in Kansas. Williams’ brother Ryan, who plays Stacey in the film, was offered a similar deal.
Ryan is the one who brought Williams and Allen and Albert Hughes together. He’d acted in some short films for the twins, and eventually introduced them to his big brother. Williams was studying film and business at Cal State Long Beach, where he transferred after two years at the University of Utah.
The way Allen tells it, Williams wouldn’t call the Hughes brothers back when he was in film school and they were still in high school. Only after their success at making music videos for rappers KRS-One and Too Short did Williams give them one of his scripts to read. Allen was impressed with how he handled natural-sounding dialogue. The Hughes brothers got Williams to write the script, then gave it to independent producer Darin Scott to shop around. New Line gave them a deal in 1992.
The writer-director collaboration has been mutually beneficial.
“You got a lot of writers that are bitter,” said Williams. “They’ve been through the process, and they were raped by Hollywood. But I guess I had a spoiled experience. Nobody else touched the script. And I was on the set a lot. My background and schooling was in film business; as a writer I understand why logistically a script has to change. . . . I do my art, but I understand the realities of the business I work in.”
Albert, he says, is a “mad scientist behind the camera,” who knows what everything should look and sound like before ever starting to film.
“Basically, I come up with the idea,” explains Albert, “but I’m not that articulate as far as writing goes--and I start to describe it to him in my way, which is broken English. And then he could write out the way that I was thinking. . . . It almost drives me crazy that I have to write down these notes and then give them to him to translate onto the page, but he’s good at it.” “Menace II Society” has been likened to several films, most often John Singleton’s 1991 film “Boyz N the Hood,” also set in South-Central.
“When you deal with the real landscape, there’s only one reality that’s there overall, so you’re going to have things that are similar,” Williams says. “It’s funny, though, how people always draw comparisons with this film to other films based on color--everybody, black and white. We’ve been compared to ‘Boyz N the Hood’ often. But if you sit down and look at ‘Menace’ and ‘Boyz N the Hood,’ and ‘Menace’ and ‘GoodFellas,’ you’ll find it’s much closer to ‘GoodFellas.’ . . . But people don’t make comparisons to films that are alike, they make comparisons to films that are black.”
Before writing “Menace,” Williams watched “GoodFellas,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Platoon” and “Scarface” looking for films with a sense of gritty realism and effective use of voice-over.
The influence of the gangster movies in particular is evident in “Menace.” When Caine is recovering in the hospital after being shot, he watches gangster movies on TV.
“Basically that was his whole attitude after he’d been shot. . . . You just went out and took what you want,” he says.
That attitude traps Caine in a violent downward spiral that leaves him wondering if he even cares if he lives or dies. Though the film is filled with gunplay, Williams thinks it’s an honest portrayal of the brutality on the streets.
“Yeah, we have a lot of gunplay. But last week in Los Angeles, the death toll was 24 people? 26 people? More than in Bosnia, where there’s a war going on?” he says. "(“Menace” shows) that when you get shot, that it’s not like in ‘Lethal Weapon’ where you fall, but then you get up and keep running and your shirt is still clean. . . . You’re going to die. And for those that care at all whether they live or die . . . hopefully they can see their lives on screen.”
After violence at the openings of “Boyz N the Hood” and “New Jack City,” there was some concern that “Menace” would also have problems. However, there were no reports of disruptions during its first week of release.
“I went to a theater last night and they had a ton of security. And the theater wasn’t really packed--it was a Wednesday night way out in the Valley. It’s kind of like you know you’re in an uncomfortable environment when you know you have armed guards policing you,” he says.
Opening night, Williams and the Hughes were going to local theaters to see how people were reacting. “Everybody says they’ve been responding to it really well. That’s the cool thing for us. Ultimately, those are the true critics. We put this film out and it’s supposed to depict them. They’ll let us know if we’re not depicting them.”
With the strong start of “Menace"--it pulled in $3.8 million over the weekend, and cost only $3.4 million to make--Williams and the Hughes brothers are already cooking up their next project, “Public Enemez,” an urban action thriller.
Williams figures he’ll probably finish up his degree at Cal State Long Beach someday--he’s got some general education classes yet to take. “I’m hoping if I stay out here long enough and do something they’ll give me an honorary degree,” he says with a big grin.
But his life now is a little different from when he was a student.
“I’m busier. Can’t sleep as much as I used to,” he says. “I got some money now. I was broke before . . . and living off my parents. . . . Basically not too much has changed. Me and the twins, we just sit up all night, watch movies, hang out. Lead regular boring lives.”