Rick Famuyiwa steps into the marble-lined entryway of Pangaea, a restaurant on the first floor of the Hotel Nikko on La Cienega Boulevard. A couple of patrons glance up from their breakfast plates; the 6-foot-4 26-year-old is a quietly commanding presence. Famuyiwa scans the room uncertainly, then forges ahead, past leather booths filled with executives in crisp business suits.
He slides into the booth, pushes back the brim of his black baseball cap, picks up the menu and looks over the breakfast items. They start at $9 for pancakes and work their way up to a "Japanese Breakfast," which includes grilled fish, poached eggs and dried seaweed, for $24. Famuyiwa shakes his head and smiles.
"Three years ago, if you told me I would be sitting here today at the whatever restaurant talking to the Los Angeles Times about my first feature film, I would have had you committed. Of course, this is exactly what I set out to do, but when it actually happens it's weird, because you prepare yourself to be disappointed.
"To have it happen, just as you envisioned in your wildest fantasies, is just incredible. I feel extremely lucky."
The film is "The Wood," which Famuyiwa wrote and directed for MTV Films and Paramount Pictures; it opens Friday on more than 1,000 screens nationwide, and Paramount's sending him on a nine-city tour to promote it. If the movie's reception meets MTV and Paramount's high expectations, Famuyiwa will inevitably be portrayed as an overnight success story, another USC film school whiz kid--a la George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and John Singleton--who scored a hit movie at a major studio before the ink on his diploma had dried.
But in the three years since he graduated from USC, Famuyiwa has already ridden the Hollywood roller coaster from hot property to yesterday's news and back again, and developed a healthy wariness for the seductive but dangerous embrace of what Jack Kerouac called "the bitch-goddess" of success.
Four years ago, Famuyiwa made a 12-minute film titled "Blacktop Lingo" as his senior project for USC's film school. "Lingo" was an audacious, hilarious and poignant slice-of-life portrait of the characters who congregate around a public basketball court in Inglewood. The film had a powerful ring of truth because Famuyiwa had grown up there and spent countless hours playing ball on its public courts.
The movie caught the eye of Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute, and she selected it to be screened at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.
"Lingo" stirred up a flurry of attention, including a Los Angeles Times Magazine profile, and Famuyiwa quickly landed an agent. Over the next two years he attended dozens of meetings with development executives at most of Hollywood's major production companies. Everyone was eager to shake hands with an obviously talented young black filmmaker. But when Rick gave them screenplays or pitched them story ideas that, like "Lingo," focused on facets of middle-class, African American life rarely glimpsed in mainstream Hollywood movies, the executives sank into a glazed-eyed torpor.
"They just weren't interested in dramas that raised racial issues," Famuyiwa says.
Instead, the suits suggested he come up with something "broader" and "more accessible"--say something in the vein of "House Party" or "Booty Call." Little by little, he made adjustments and compromises and tried to create stories that might interest them.
Finally, one afternoon in the winter of 1996, Famuyiwa found himself sitting in the office of a development executive, pitching a story about "Willie Popcorn," a modern-day Don Quixote obsessed with the "blaxploitation" stars of the '70s. In the middle of his pitch, Famuyiwa suddenly thought to himself: "What am I doing?" He had started out to make movies that would redefine the way blacks were portrayed, and now here he was pitching an absurd, cliche-ridden yarn he didn't even want to make.
"It's insidious how Hollywood warps your values without you even realizing that it's happening to you," Famuyiwa says. "You get a little whiff of success and it whets your appetite, and before you know it you're going right down the road they've laid out for you. And you justify it. You say, 'Well, you know, if I just fudge a little bit on this one, then maybe it'll buy me the opportunity to do my own kind of film next time.'
"Then when that pitch doesn't sell, you say to yourself, 'Well, maybe I'll go a little further this time. It's only one script.' And the next thing you know you're completely lost."
But Famuyiwa was determined to find himself again. He stopped taking meetings and sat down and began writing a new script, one that felt more real. He called it "The Wood." It was about his own life--what it was like to go to high school in Inglewood in the '80s and the close friendships he formed with two other boys as he made the awkward transition from adolescence to young adulthood.
He wrote at night, because by this time he'd been forced to take a day job selling shoes at Niketown in Beverly Hills. And it looked like he'd be peddling sneakers for some time to come because he couldn't imagine anyone in Hollywood would be interested in reading such a "soft" story.
Then, in early 1997, he got a call from Satter. She hadn't lost her fondness for "Lingo" or her belief in his talent. The Sundance Institute would be holding its annual filmmakers-screenwriters lab in the summer, and she wondered if Famuyiwa had a screenplay he wanted to submit. His pulse quickened; he told her he would in about a month.
Famuyiwa delivered the first draft of "The Wood" to Satter in March 1997. "It was thrilling to read a script that was about a middle-class, African American neighborhood," Satter says. "That's a rare thing. The characters were so well drawn. I felt clearly that he had grown up in this neighborhood that he was writing about."
Indeed, many of the scenes were set in actual locations that Famuyiwa and his pals had frequented as a teenager: La Tijera School on La Cienega Boulevard, where he had been a student; Randy's Donuts, where his mother used to drop him off to be picked up for high school basketball games; Round Table Pizza, where he and his friends had hung out after school talking about girls; and a convenience store a block from Famuyiwa's house, where the boys would stock up on Tic Tacs before a dance so they'd be ready for those "close-up" moments. When he eventually made the movie, Famuyiwa shot in all of these locales.
But even more compelling to Satter were the characters that populated the script. "He knew these kids and he wrote beautifully about them--both as adolescents and as men in their 20s. It was a wonderful story about the bonds of friendship, and how relationships inevitably change when one of these young men decides to get married."
Famuyiwa used the wedding, which takes place in the present, as a springboard for examining the men's past. As the story opens, the groom (Taye Diggs) is missing. Two of his old high school pals (Omar Epps and Richard T. Jones) set off on a frantic search to find him before the ceremony begins. They locate the husband-to-be at the apartment of a former girlfriend and discover he's falling-down drunk and in the grips of prenuptial jitters.
Before the filmmakers lab, Satter set up a staged reading of his screenplay at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. Professional actors were lined up to read the various parts, and a couple hundred audience members were invited to the event, including independent producer Ron Yerxa. Yerxa was busy preparing to make "Election" for MTV and Paramount with his partner Albert Berger, but he respected Satter's instincts as a developer of new talent, so he made time to come to the reading.
"The audience went wild for it," Yerxa recalls. "One of Rick's talents is he has a knack for capturing the way people talk. . . . I knew that night that I wanted to make the movie, and was sure that it was the kind of project that MTV would like to finance."
At the lab, Famuyiwa rehearsed three scenes from his screenplay with professional actors, shot them on videotape and edited them into a finished product. Cinematographer Allen Daviau ("E.T.," "The Color Purple") served as his cameraman, and Denzel Washington stood by to advise him on the fine points of working with actors.
The most valuable learning experience occurred when he shot a scene in which two 16-year-olds make love for the first time. Malinda Williams, who took the part of the young girl, was having trouble playing the scene as written.
"Rick had portrayed this young woman as getting a great deal of pleasure out of the experience, and that's the way he wanted me to play it," recalls Williams, who ended up playing the part in the movie. "But I told him it isn't like that for a young girl when she loses her virginity. It's scary, and nine times out of 10 it's very painful. When a girl decides that she's going to give herself to a boy for the first time, there are so many things going through her head, it's overwhelming."
"We had a two-hour discussion about the scene," Famuyiwa says. ....I'm glad Malinda challenged me because she brought a whole new dimension to the scene."
Famuyiwa returned to Los Angeles after the lab with a sense of excitement he hadn't felt since his earliest days as a film student. "The lab was my rebirth," Famuyiwa says. "It gave me faith in filmmaking again. I said to myself: 'I'm going to make this movie, even if I have to borrow money or hit up relatives!' "
It never came to that. Satter contacted David Gale, a senior executive with MTV Films, which bought the screenplay, signed Famuyiwa to direct it and green-lit "The Wood" for a $6-million production. It was shot last summer; when it was previewed this spring, audiences responded enthusiastically, according to Yerxa.
Notes Berger, "I think [Paramount's] enthusiasm for it is indicated by the fact that they're opening it right in the dead center of summer when all the big guns are coming out."
Famuyiwa, who now lives in Culver City, is working on another screenplay that MTV and Paramount have already expressed an interest in. But everything could change if "The Wood" fails to live up to expectations at the box office--and no one's more aware of that than Famuyiwa. "I'm not as cocky as I used to be," he says. "These past three years have been quite an education."
But it's been a valuable one, at least in the eyes of Todd Boyd, a professor in USC's School of Cinema-Television who was a formative influence on Famuyiwa. Boyd has continued to take a keen interest in his former pupil's career and served as an associate producer on "The Wood."
"In life, you come across obstacles at certain points," Boyd says. "It's the way that you respond to those obstacles that ultimately defines you.
"It was necessary for Rick to go through the frustrations that he had; it's part of the learning process. Hollywood can easily distort your character. It's good that Rick learned that lesson early." *