Neil Drumming is a veteran journalist who's written and edited for the Washington City Paper, Entertainment Weekly, and elsewhere. Last year, he decided to turn his screenplay into a movie, and—unlike many other would-be filmmakers—actually made it happen. His film Big Words is making its NYC premiere at BAM next Friday.
Neil is here to answer questions from you in our discussion section right now. Go ask! A Q&A with him about his work is below.
You were a journalist by trade. A lot of journalists dream about writing screenplays and making movies, but few ever actually do it. How did you make your movie a reality, while so many other people fail?
ND: Unfortunately, like most of my answers, this one will be sort of long and complicated. I started writing screenplays while I was still at Entertainment Weekly. I hadn't gotten anything produced, or even optioned. But because I was covering a lot of film for the magazine, I felt like a conflict of interest was imminent and I wanted to avoid that. Fortunately, my wife supported — and even encouraged — my rather ridiculous decision to leave a cushy, much coveted job at a huge, well-respected media outlet for the wilds of screenwriting.
Even after that, I didn't have much interest in directing or the logistics of actually making a film independently. But my producer Matt Smith, then friend, and a few others (Ta-nehisi Coates among them) loved the script for Big Words and pushed me in that direction. I went through some mishaps with other collaborators and finally realized that the only way the film would get made is if I did it myself. Following that, ignorance of the pitfalls of the process, sheer bullheadedness, and a fantastic cast and crew carried us through.
I guess, then, the short answer is: I had a lot of support.
How did you get the idea for the movie?
ND: As is often the case with first films, it could be said that my entire life lead up to Big Words. On the surface, the film is about three grown men who used to be in a rap group. I grew up listening to hip-hop music. As much as I dislike the phrase "hip-hop culture," I guess you could say I was raised in it. I rapped for years and still write the occasional rhyme. I've been making beats since I was a tween, back when that word didn't exist. So many people around me did the same. I began my career as a journalist mostly writing about hip-hop and interviewing rappers. So I have a lot of insight into — and am privy to some interesting stories about — the purveyors of the culture.
At the same time, when I started writing the screenplay I was getting into my mid-to-late thirties. I was thinking a lot about growing up, regrets, roads not traveled, all that crap. Also, I had this weird relationship with hip-hop where I sort of didn't jibe with a lot of the ideas that seemed to have become the hallmarks of the culture. And there was this common notion that hip-hop was purely youth culture. I started wanting to write about what it's like to grow up and — possibly — out of hip-hop. I started paying attention to other films that had tread similar territory with other cultures, like The Big Chill and High Fidelity. The movie came out of all that.
Big Words deals with the growing-up and adult-ification of the hip hop generation. What do you think the legacy of the "golden age" of hip hop is going to be? How has your own thinking about hip hop changed as you've grown up?
ND: I'm doing my damnedest not to become some sort of champion for the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. I don't want to be a 40-year-old man trying to tell some 14-year-old Nicki Minaj fan to go back and study Busta Rhymes. I came of age listening to Special Ed, Chubb Rock, De La Soul, X-Clan, Tribe, UMCs, Diamond D, Wu-Tang, Jungle Brothers, Beatnuts, the Liks, Leaders of the New School, Souls of Mischief, Black Sheep, Ice Cube, Black Moon, Cypress Hill, etc. Those groups created the soundtrack for some of the greatest, most exciting, most uncertain periods of my life, and so I am unapologetic about my affection for their music. But my nostalgia is not a political stance. It's just context for who I am and some of the stories I want to tell. I also really like Death Cab for Cutie.
Writing and filmmaking are both fields with far more people that want to be in them than actual jobs. Which is harder?
ND: Fuck if I know. When I was a journalist, it felt like everybody wanted to be a writer. Now that I'm a filmmaker, the competition seems just as stiff, if maybe a bit younger. The thing I liked about journalism, though, was that it didn't seem like you had to sell yourself as much. The work stood for itself a lot of the time. A good piece is a good piece. But with movies, a good screenplay will only get you so far. You need to convince investors, actors, crew, and a shitload of other folks to help you actually finish this thing and make a movie. To that end, you have to get people to believe in you as much as they believe in what you're trying to make. There's a lot of pressure in that. The upshot, though, is that if you do get people to believe in you, then you have support. You're working with a group of enthusiastic, excited individuals who bring their own ideas and ingenuity to the table. It's not just you alone in the dark with a bottle of Jack Daniels and Microsoft Word open on your desktop.
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[Original image via Getty]