If you’re ever in danger of running out of superlatives when describing John Singleton, thankfully the director can provide plenty of his own; maybe he was just feeling confident on the morning after the Los Angeles premiere for “Abduction,” where “Twilight” fans transferred their “Team Jacob” fantasies onto Taylor Lautner’s new action thriller. Singleton certainly didn’t spare any modesty when describing his work on the film when we sat down to talk with him. “If you look at that film, or the action pictures that I make, they’re totally different from what anybody else would do with them."
Of course, thanks to a marketing campaign that effectively positioned Lautner as a teenage Jason Bourne, “Abduction” will at least seem familiar to audiences as they enter the theater to watch it. But Singleton said that he turned the film’s most thrilling mysteries into themes that any teenager could relate to. “I think of it more as a young man who was kind of out of place in the family that he was in, which is something a lot of teenagers feel organically, even if they’re biologically linked to their families. And then finding out that family isn’t his real family, which is the whole MacGuffin, the genre thing of it.”
Singleton first made his name in 1991 when he wrote and directed “Boyz n tha Hood,” a deeply personal inner-city drama that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Now at the helm of tentpole action thrillers, Singleton admitted that he’s not the same guy who once shepherded that intimate character study from his ‘hood to Hollywood. “I’m not the same filmmaker I was when I made that,” he said. “I’m totally different; I’ve evolved, I’ve changed, I’ve gotten better, and I’ve gotten more nuanced as a filmmaker. I’m the same guy, really, but I’ve just evolved and gotten older.”
Nevertheless, Singleton insisted that his success in the mainstream hasn’t come at the cost of an intimate connection with the material he chooses. “It’s personal in a different way,” he explained. “I mean, I’m doing things even in these different genre pictures that are personal. Like ‘Four Brothers’ – you look at that film, or the action pictures that I make, [and] they’re totally different from what anybody else would do with them. They have more heart and more weight.” In fact, Singleton suggested that part of the reason that Lionsgate hired him to helm “Abduction” was both because of his efficiency, and personality, behind the camera. “They wanted me to do this movie because they wanted to do it quick. And Taylor wanted to do something with an edgy filmmaker, and make it cool and commercial and stuff. So that’s why I came aboard.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Singleton is a cinephile filmmaker, preparing for his own films by watching older films from the same genre he’s working in, the influence of which occasionally shows up in one form or another in the finished product. But he said that with a chase thriller like “Abduction,” much less one in which two romantically-involved fugitives find themselves on a train, it’s easy to find a place to pay homage to the classics that inspired him. “It’s not difficult,” he said. “There’s stuff in this movie that’s just classic, simple stuff, like the intimacy between the two characters. It’s right out of ‘North By Northwest,’ with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint; when they’re on the train and kissing for a long, long time, I showed the kids that, and the way Eva Marie Saint does her hands and her fingers and plays with the back of his head, and I had Lily [Collins] do that stuff. That’s the fun stuff about it.”
Still, Singleton said those references and homages mean less than the emotional connection they create between the characters and the audience. “Even with all of the tricks and stuff that you can do, cinema is all about a reflection of reality. It’s about people watching human life in different scenarios and being excited about that.” Furthermore, he said that the key is creating a sense of authenticity: “Once you turn the cameras on, it’s all about plausibility,” he insisted, acknowledging that sometimes a well-told story is more important than a realistic one. “Sometimes, you want to do stuff that’s hyper-reality, I say. [But] I just go with my gut feeling. I don’t overthink it or over-intellectualize it.”
Given the variety of options he has on his plate going forward, it sounds like Singleton's career decisions can be largely intuitive. “I’m trying to figure that out right now,” he said when asked what’s next. “It depends on my mood. And I’m figuring it out in the next three or four months.” One of those potential projects is the long-gestating “Tulia,” which at one time might have reunited “Monster’s Ball” co-stars Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton. “That cast is going to change now,” he revealed. “That was a script I wrote like four or five years ago with Karen Croner. So I don’t know if that’s happening.”
Although he didn’t offer specifics, Singleton said that he might return to the well he drew from for “Boyz n tha Hood” and “Baby Boy,” if only to prove that he’s the best-qualified filmmaker in Hollywood for stories about inner-city life. “I’m going back, I’m going back,” he said. “I’ve written a couple of screenplays where I’m going to go back and do some stuff in that milieu. I mean, Martin Scorsese makes the best Italian-American movies, and that’s the way I look at it.” He also said that if there’s any audience fatigue for those films, it’s because of lackluster imitators that his superlative work inspired.
“All of those movies were spotty, because most of them came from people who didn’t really live in that milieu,” he observed. “And at the time, hip-hop was burgeoning. Some of those were more excuses to make a soundtrack to the picture than tell an actual story. So I don’t really deal with all of that; I deal with what I do, and I know I do it very well.”
But ultimately, no matter what he takes on next, Singleton says that the key to success for him isn’t what he does or how he does it, but the simple fact that it’s him who’s doing it. “If I do it, it’s authentic, you know what I mean? Nobody does that type of film the way I do it - and audiences know that already.”