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6 Filmmaking Tips From John Singleton

The filmmaker behind ‘Boyz n the Hood’ and ‘Shaft’ on confidence, cameras, and where to find authentic stories.
By  · Published on May 9th, 2019

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of John Singleton.

Best known for his feature debut Boyz n the Hood, filmmaker John Singleton became the youngest Academy Award nominee for Best Director at the age of 24 and also received a Best Screenplay nomination for a script he completed as a college undergrad. With a career that spanned three decades, he wrote and directed everything from film festival fare (Rosewood) to popcorn-munching action flicks (Shaft, 2 Fast 2 Furious), helmed episodes of several TV series (Empire, Billions), and co-created the FX series Snowfall.

As outspoken as he was inspirational, Singleton shared plenty of great advice over the years prior to his death in April 2019. In honor of his contributions to the industry, here are six of his best filmmaking tidbits:

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from John Singleton

1. Be Patient

In July 2017, Singleton participated in the Television Academy Foundation video interview series and discussed his career and his thoughts on the industry. When asked to name the most important lesson he’s learned along the way, the filmmaker had the following to say:

“Just patience. Be patient. Try to be well-read and relaxed. If things aren’t working out, don’t panic. […] I’ve never been a person to panic. I mean, outside of [filmmaking], I spend a lot of time sailing. I go down to Mexico, I go out to islands 50, 100 miles offshore, and that’s when you learn stuff because you’re at the mercy of the elements. You get close to God. And it’s the same as directing—totally the same as directing, as in there’s a certain amount that’s in your control and then there’s a certain amount that’s not in your control. But you’re able to try to guide and navigate the whole thing. I’m making an analogy now, but it’s true.”

The full 70-minute long interview can be found on the Television Academy Foundation’s website, and the quote above also features in the following clip posted to their YouTube channel (starting at 3:21):

2. Go For Single Camera

There are a lot of different approaches to shooting. Digital or film, rehearsals or no rehearsals, go for coverage with a lot of angles or just get the one-shot? Different filmmakers have different takes on how they approach the process. As far as cameras are concerned, Singleton prefers a single-camera approach, as he told Stephen Galloway in a March 2014 interview as part of the “Hollywood Masters” series for The Hollywood Reporter. His reasoning behind this approach also serves as a strong argument to consider switching to his way of thinking:

“I like to use [a] single camera. I think that true directing is becoming really a lost art because people are, the technology is so advanced that you can have various cameras at different sizes and put them in various places. There’s a reason why you can watch older films—whether or not they’re American films or foreign films—why you can watch a film by Akira Kurosawa or François Truffaut or Orson Welles. Filmmakers who had true command of the craft, even when they’re working with big bulky equipment, and trying to find ways to creatively find choreography with the subjects, with the characters, and the environment. And it’s seamless. You’re not aware of directing. You’re not aware that you’re being manipulated. Now people are like, I’ll put three cameras on it in this way. That’s—anybody can do that. To really be a painter, to actually have a thing where you know you want the actor to go at this point and then either have their back to the camera and do most of their dialogue that way, where you don’t see their faces, is a conscious choice. It’s a conscious choice to know that that person is going to hit that mark.”

3. Don’t Work in Fear

At the 2016 Austin Film Festival, Singleton participated in a Q&A as part of the festival’s On Story Project and discussed his works, the films that inspired him, and his filmmaking process. He gave plenty of great tips in the process, including the following words of encouragement:

“My whole idea is, I know better than what people who work in fear [do]. People who work in fear […] there’s probably a dozen people in here who have some type of vision of something they want to do, and you’re always like, ‘Oh my God, will they like it?’ Don’t ask yourself that question, ‘Will they like it?’—do you like it? Fuck what they like. It’s what you like. You know what I mean? There’s so many great, great things that come that would have never come if someone had said, ‘well, I don’t know, I don’t know if I should tell this story, because nobody is going to identify with it.'”

You can watch the whole interview below; the featured quote begins at 8:55:

4. You Have to Have a Story

As a student in the Filmic Writing Program, Singleton wrote the screenplay for Boyz n the Hood for his undergraduate thesis at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. A 1992 profile of the filmmaker written by Janice C. Simpson features a quote from the head of the writing program, who claimed that she “wouldn’t have predicted his success” when he entered as a freshman but noted that he was extremely motivated and made the best use of the program, that he “was driven to communicate certain ideas, and not about to take no for an answer.”

In that same article, which can be found in the John Singleton: Interviews anthology of profiles of the filmmaker, Singleton elaborated on why he chose to pursue writing as opposed to directing in school, and his explanation also works as a solid piece of advice:

“Any fool can figure where to point the camera, but you have to have a story to tell.”

5. Be Confident

Singleton gave the keynote address at the 2012 Film Independent Forum. The program’s Youtube page posted a selection of clips from his keynote in which he shares various tidbits of filmmaking advice. While the entire video has some great advice, a personal anecdote leading into a commentary on the importance of presenting a confident front is particularly of note:

“In our neighborhoods, we were most afraid of the smallest dude on the block, because he just had no fucking fear. The small guys, they puff their chests out so big to make themselves bigger, you know what I mean? Dudes that are like six [feet] something, they’d be like, ‘I’m not gonna fuck with little Chris,’ right? And so that’s the way you have to be in Hollywood. You have to be like, ‘what I’m doing is the shit.'”

You can watch the video below; the featured quote starts at 2:30:

6. Listen to Real People

In honor of the 25th anniversary of Boyz n the Hood back in 2016, the SVA Theater in New York hosted a special screening of the film followed by a Q&A with Singleton in conversation with author Walter Mosley. Filmmaker magazine wrote coverage of the event and reposted it recently following Singleton’s death. In the interview, Singleton discussed his passion for telling stories that are culturally specific and authentic. In the process, he gave the following great advice for finding truthful, compelling stories to tell:

“When you’re in and around folks, you get stories. Everybody has a story to tell, but not everybody has the wherewithal to tell it. Not everybody can sit down and write it, damn near write a movie about it. I feel like I’m a conduit for those folks. […] I look at it like Ernest Hemingway: he would travel to different places, and he would write about his experiences. I love being able to do that, and listen to people — just real talk. That’s why I get the cadence and the rhythm of language, and I store it away. When I’m trying to do a story I don’t over-intellectualize things. You gotta feel it.”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

John Singleton was a bold and determined filmmaker who refused simple categorization. His career spanned film and television, big-budget blockbusters, and self-funded indie fare. As mentioned in the third featured quote in this article, he was a filmmaker who first and foremost focused on the sorts of stories he wanted to tell, and not what conventional wisdom told him would be successful.

In a 1991 interview published in People magazine, Singleton said, “I’m already hearing young black filmmakers referred to as the next John Singleton… I’m still trying to be the next John Singleton.” And it is, perhaps, not in any single piece of advice, but the general theme of the filmmaker’s career that the most inspiring message is to be found about determination and pursuing not just the career you love, but the stories you love, and persevering until it pays off.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.