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But can he act?

Times Staff Writer

They ushered the Detroit kid into the Hollywood chamber of power and sat him down on a crimson couch beneath perfectly framed photographs of grinning movie stars. They told him he, too, could be a star and waited for him to be giddy or nervous or even visibly interested. Instead, the kid shrugged and said, “Yeah, OK.”

That was in January 2000, when Eminem was a music sensation but not yet assured the twin titles of world’s top rapper and American pop culture’s most incendiary young artist. His music and videos were theatrical, but there was really no reason to believe he could carry a movie. And it was arguably ludicrous to assume he could shoulder a gritty drama written, directed and filmed by people with exactly zero background in the rap world. Somehow, though, that is exactly what happened.

The bold result, a film called “8 Mile,” should make Eminem a cultural force of newfound potency and, just maybe, put him in a place where he won’t have to explain himself anymore.

“8 Mile,” which opens Nov. 8, has in Eminem a star who has been a cannonball in the pool of pop music, hailed by some as a Lenny Bruce of street music and reviled by others as just another rusty nail on the cultural landscape. It also has 57-year-old director Curtis Hanson, who was praised for the confident craft of “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys” but came to “8 Mile” with a creeping worry that he might be a clumsy tourist in rap. Its screenwriter, meanwhile, is the man who co-wrote and directed the 1999 film “The Mod Squad,” a failure so bruising that, when asked what in “8 Mile” most reflects his voice, he cited the scene where the main character vomits backstage because he is so afraid of his audience.

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The trajectory of the “8 Mile” project was set by the fame of Eminem, which could have sent the movie in one of two directions -- either a commercial-minded farce with a hit soundtrack or a film that uses its built-in allure to take some chances. The course it took, which started two years ago in the office of producer Brian Grazer, is clearly the latter, and that makes “8 Mile” the most intriguing music-star film in years.

“I remember he was sitting here and he would not look at me, he would only look straight ahead,” recalls Grazer, whose movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” won the Oscar for best picture of 2001. “When you bring people in, at least they usually look at you or at least eventually talk. He just didn’t.”

Grazer had set the meeting after catching a glimpse of Eminem on an MTV awards show. The producer had for years been meeting rappers, from Slick Rick to Tone Loc, looking for a star for a “meaningful” hip-hop film, the one who could do for hip-hop youth what “Blackboard Jungle” had done for rock ‘n’ roll kids and “Saturday Night Fever” for disco kids.

Why did Grazer think the unblinking white kid on his couch was the one? Especially considering Eminem has been excoriated for lyrics of venom, homophobia, violence and lewdness? “I never had any doubt,” Grazer says. “Just seeing him on TV for six seconds I knew he could act. And then when he came here and I was with him, I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.... And this movie is going to change the way a lot of people look at him.”

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The success of the film awaits the critics and box office, but screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and a Puerto Rico convention of hip-hop DJs have created positive buzz. If it does succeed, “8 Mile” will be an unlikely bridge between Hollywood and Detroit that also illuminates on film how issues of race are bending to the backbeat of hip-hop.

Not quite a biography

“8Mile” is not the life story of its star, but it flirts so closely with the path of young Marshall Bruce Mathers III to his stardom as Eminem that the movie feels like a rap remix -- tweaked but with the same beats. The movie follows one week in the life of Jimmy “Rabbit” Smith who, at the start of the film, is forced to move into a trailer with his boozy mother. The film’s title is the roadway that separates that trailer in the poor, white rural community from the poor, urban black areas where Rabbit finds the comfort of hip-hop culture. Rabbit is an outsider on both sides of 8 Mile.

For Hanson, the film is as much about geography as biography, a map of Detroit’s despairs. The director spent time in the city in the 1980s researching a project on child drug dealers and, when he saw the “8 Mile” script written by Scott Silver, he remembered how young Detroiters seemed like kids at play in a condemned factory.

A number of top directors vied for “8 Mile,” but Grazer says he tapped Hanson because he “is an American director who can tell an American story, and that’s what this is.” Hanson was blunt, though, when he went to Detroit to meet Eminem: He would sign on if the star committed to a serious youth film, a “Rebel Without a Cause,” not a two-hour music video.

“That’s where our bond started,” Hanson recalls. “He saw that I was going to demand of him a performance that felt sufficiently and emotionally true to carry a movie without the crutch of the hit tunes, a high bar for someone their first time out.”

The script had been written by Silver, who was coming off “The Mod Squad” but was able to win over Grazer’s people with a script he had written about Richard Pryor. Once hired, Silver, who describes himself as a 38-year-old white guy from Malibu, went out and bought $700 in rap CDs. More educational were grainy videos of Eminem in 1990s rap “battles,” the swaggering rhyme competitions that trace back to rap’s 1970s birth in New York. The battles would become the signature scenes in “8 Mile” and make for the moments of music-as-urban-escape that propelled “Saturday Night Fever,” “Flashdance” and “Purple Rain.”

Silver’s script was flexible as far as setting, but Hanson was resolute that Detroit be the locale for the story and all filming. In “Wonder Boys,” Hanson used the bridges of Pittsburgh to convey the film’s life passages and in “8 Mile,” he wanted Detroit to be the harsh sidewalk that can’t stifle the weeds of youth and art. To capture the grit, the director tapped cinematographer Rodrigro Prieto, who surveyed Mexico’s mean streets in “Amores Perros,” and Philip Messina, production designer for the narcotics epic “Traffic.” He also cast locals as rappers, factory workers and even as Rabbit’s sister. The more difficult task, however, was preparing the novice Eminem. Six weeks of rehearsal were scheduled, much of them in a Detroit riverfront hotel with auditioning actors in an exercise to hone the rapper’s nascent craft.

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For emotional compass points, Hanson showed Eminem “Raging Bull” and “Romper Stomper,” the Australian film of violent youth, as well as “Killer of Sheep,” Charles Burnett’s 1977 gem about Watts street life. Eminem “soaked everything up like a sponge,” Hanson says.

And the sponge felt wrung out by the process. “Working with Curtis was like going into film boot camp,” Eminem says. “It was long, grueling and difficult. But I think the end product speaks for itself.”

If Hanson educated Eminem in film, the rapper made the director a rap fan of nuance. “The New York way of saying ‘yo’ is different than the Detroit ‘yo’ -- it comes in the sentence in an entirely different place. Did you know that?” Hanson also recognized the advantage of setting “8 Mile” in 1995 when the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry was still fought with words. The characters reference the rivalry in the way rock fans used to debate Stones vs. Beatles. “There was a sort of innocence still,” he says.

The pair huddled often to plan Rabbit’s battle rhymes, and Hanson noted Eminem’s ability to consume information and return it in clever and dizzying ways. In his downtime, the rapper hunched over a notebook, scrawling lyrics. Hanson could hear Eminem’s music seeping through the dressing room walls as the rapper toiled on a new recording for the final scene. The finished product, “Lose Yourself,” is Eminem’s latest radio hit.

“Has there ever been a movie where the star wrote the song on the set and recorded it for the movie’s ending?” Hanson asks. “It’s like everything was heading toward that song, the character ends up in that place.”

You better lose yourself in the music

The moment you own it you better never let it go, oh

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow

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Cuz opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo

-- “Lose Yourself”

No more ‘white culture’?

The song “Lose Yourself” is pumping out of the stereo speakers on the balcony of Jimmy Iovine’s Santa Monica office as the music mogul calls an assistant to track down “American Skin.” Iovine says the new book by Leon E. Wynter and its race analysis resonate in “8 Mile.”

“American Skin” says the nation’s melting pot is now on high simmer because of cultural forces, among them the brawn of rap in art and commerce. The book predicts “white culture” will soon be as meaningful to young people as a typewriter repair manual. Iovine, co-chairman of Interscope Records -- the label for Eminem’s three albums -- and an executive producer of “8 Mile,” wanted to see that on film.

Eminem’s ascension began in earnest when an Interscope intern handed Iovine an amateur recording of the Detroit rhymer and Iovine passed it on to Dr. Dre. Iovine knows that this new chapter in Eminem’s career will only enhance the rapper’s value to Interscope (career artists and multimedia stars are desperately sought tonic in the ailing music industry) but he says “8 Mile” also has cultural insight.

Rappers have become movie stars, but rap in film is most often a soundtrack for urban comedy and crime. “8 Mile” seeks rap truth, Iovine says. “The power of hip-hop is in these race changes, and you see these changes beginning in the 1990s with the kids in this movie,” Iovine says. “It’s about class, not race, and hip-hop is one of the reasons.”

Rabbit is well aware of race and class in “8 Mile.” In a clever word concoction, Rabbit’s crew is called Three-One-Third. The reference is to Detroit’s 313 area code but also to the crew’s membership: Three blacks and Rabbit, who is the one-third -- it’s a sly joke on the 19th century legal view that blacks counted as “one-third” of a white person. In late 20th century Detroit, Rabbit is the fraction.

“The whole film made me strip my ego back down to the guy I was in ’95,” Eminem says. “Everything from the schooling in acting to the broke world that Jimmy lived in was strange. It brought me back to actually feeling like the guy I was.”

When Rabbit finally wins over the black crowd at the Shelter club battles, it’s by showing that he is closer to them, in class status and life experience, than some of the black kids under the same roof. There is a metaphor there for Eminem’s success. He is the first white artist to become an airplay staple on urban radio with predominantly black audiences.

“That is what the film is about, that is what hip-hop is about, and that is why Eminem is who and what he is today,” Iovine says. “This movie is about Detroit, but what happened there is happening everywhere.”

Detroit, warts and all

Eminem is not Rabbit. “Rabbit shows a much more narrow range of emotions than I do.... Jimmy seems to be a more serious, almost depressed and volatile guy,” Eminem says in an interview conducted via e-mail. “We don’t get to see Jimmy’s lighter side in the film.”

That may be true, but Eminem’s Detroit is the same city where Rabbit runs, and that alone makes it unusual for Hollywood. According to the Michigan film office, “8 Mile” appears to be the first major Hollywood film shot entirely in Detroit. “And it captures the whole intensity of it, the real Detroit, the burned-out Detroit, out in the bitter cold,” says Xzibit, the Detroit-born rapper who plays one of Eminem’s rhyming rivals. “It ain’t pretty, but it’s real.”

The realities of Detroit were apparent in the making of a scene that has Rabbit and friends engaging in vigilante redevelopment. In the scene, word is out that the city won’t raze an abandoned house that has been the site of a child rape, so Rabbit and his buddies decide to torch it themselves. Upstairs, dousing drawers with gas, Rabbit sees an old photograph of the long-gone residents, a smiling father, mother and their kids, all in their Sunday best. He stares with longing at the image as flames surge behind him.

Hanson added the scene to the script when a local resident shared the real-life account of a neighborhood arson with the same grim motivation. City officials at first refused a permit for the filmed arson -- their worry was that destroying an eyesore in a movie might hurt the image of the city as opposed to, say, leaving the building standing. “It is,” Hanson says, “pretty crazy if you think about it.”

There was another lesson in the making of the scene: The film’s art department, heeding Hanson’s standing orders of authenticity, scoured Detroit flea markets and thrift stores to find a photo of a Detroit nuclear family, from the 1970s. They could not find a single one. The photograph in the movie was staged; it’s a fake family in vintage clothes.

Hanson says he shares the anecdote only to outline the challenges facing young people in Detroit and lack of “traditional signposts for many of them, things such as church and family.” He left the city, though, inspired by the people he met and with a deep affection for them. “8 Mile,” he says, “is a valentine to the people there.”

There are plenty of return valentines for Eminem on both sides of 8 Mile Road these days and he still lives in the city. Crowds often mobbed him during the filming. That’s a far cry from the outsider Marshall Mathers. “8 Mile” hopes to take filmgoers on that same journey of understanding, but Iovine reminds again that Rabbit and Eminem are not the same person. The main difference? The music executive answers immediately: “Thirty million albums, worldwide.”


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