I can’t resist talking about Friday without sharing a true story. I was 13 when the film came out in 1995. Having just moved to a Chicago suburb from Omaha, I didn’t know anybody. I was small, terrible at sports, getting picked on, and looking for any way to fit in. Having seen Dazed and Confused too many times, I figured I’d infiltrate the stoner group at school to be cool. My first deal was a single, round bud of commercial weed, given to me in an empty Michael Jackson Bad cassette case for five bucks.
I had no idea what it was, as I thought weed came shredded and readymade for joints. A burgeoning movie geek, I conned my Mom into renting Friday for me from Blockbuster. They were out for the night, and I set out to expand my mind. I broke up the bud, seeds and all, and rolled it into a joint out of notebook paper. I coughed like a bastard but was high for the first time. I popped in the Friday VHS and laughed uncontrollably by myself for the entire runtime.
It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed. Yet what’s still most extraordinary about F. Gary Gray’s cult comedy is how the film was able to transcend racial, social, and gender boundaries. Soon after watching, I found my core group of friends, who also had an unhealthy obsession quoting the film. Never once did I think I’d be celebrating the film’s anniversary two decades later with its star and hero, Ice Cube. But here we are: It’s Friday, we got a job, and we got shit to do.
Damn, things have changed.
Take me back to what was going on in your life that made you want to write a screenplay.
John Singleton, director of Boyz n the Hood. I wasn’t really thinking about Hollywood at all until I met him. I was over at his house one day, and he was like, “Yo, when are you gonna write a script?”
Did you and DJ Pooh brainstorm the story together, or did you bring him in?
It was a little of both. I had written two scripts before Friday, but they needed a lot of work. I started to write Friday because of me and DJ Pooh’s relationship. He produced some of my records, but we also had a lot of laughs. We’d laugh all day in the studio, and he’s one of the funniest people I know in-person. We was just trippin’. You gotta understand this is after Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society, and South Central had come out. These movies were hard about the neighborhood. We was like, “Yo, we used to have a little fun though!” There needs to be a movie that shows the fun we had in the neighborhood, too. That’s what got us to brainstorming, and shows like In Living Color and movies like Hollywood Shuffle inspired us. Robert Townshend used to have HBO specials that would come on that were funny. We said, “We can put together a movie about the hood and have fun with it.” That’s how it started.
Were your other two scripts harder, more Menace II Society-type scripts?
Yeah. One was called America Eats Its Young. I got that off a Funkadelic album. I thought it was just spot-on. I wrote another one called Foe Life, which was a real hard, penitentiary drama. Friday was the third one.
Did Singleton encourage you to run with the comedy?
We were both running with our own careers at that time. Boyz n the Hood was done in 1990. By 1994 and 1995, we had done Higher Learning and he had seen my skills growing as a screenplay writer. He just kept encouraging me, and when I wrote Friday, I showed it to him and he laughed and just said, “I hope you can get this made.”
As a songwriter and actor, was it easy making the transition to screenwriter?
I had to learn the fundamentals of how to write a screenplay, and it was kind of self-taught in a way. Looking at the scripts that I had, and saw how they were formatted, I figured out how I had to format my scripts. Being a writer of music, visual music, that part came easy. Being able to write down what I see in my head. Learning how to do it in a three-act movie arc, and all the other little arcs that gotta go on, that’s something I had to learn how to do, and the importance of it. It’s hard in some areas, but it’s easy and fun in others.
Was “Today Was a Good Day,” the video and song, an inspiration for the script and the look of the film?
It’s a trip because the director of Friday was F. Gary Gray, the same guy who directed the “Today Was a Good Day” video. That song sparked a little controversy within my crew, because it was like, “Yo Cube, you a hardcore rapper. What you doin’ rapping about good days?” I’m like, “No, I’m a reality rapper. The reality of the situation is, sometimes I fuckin’ have a good day. If it’s the truth, it can go in my rhymes.” It’s the same controversy I had doing the movie. “Yo, you a dramatic actor. What are you doing with this comedy? You’re a hardcore person, what are you doing laughing?” It’s like, “Fuck. I’m a real person, and I like to have fun just like everybody else!”
It had to piss you off, being stereotyped when you’re obviously a multi-dimensional guy.
I would love to get credit for just being an entertainer, who’s good at multiple things. That’s fine with me, better than “What you doin’ making the kids happy? What the fuck is wrong with you?” It’s ridiculous.
How did Chris Tucker come into the mix? Did you recognize him from House Party 3?
I saw Chris Tucker on Def Comedy Jam. That was the first time I saw him. I was like, “Yo, this dude is young, funny, and he got a hood way about him, like a neighborhood way about him.” They used him in one little scene in House Party 3, and I was like, “Whoa. If I get a chance, I’m gonna use this guy more than that.” It was a trip because Smokey was supposed to be played by DJ Pooh, but New Line felt that he didn’t have enough experience. They said we had to find somebody else, and Pooh ended up playing Red. That’s how we started searching, and Chris Tucker was the only guy I was dialed-in on. They were trying to push other comedians on me, but Chris Tucker was the only one.
What were his early auditions like? Was he nervous, or did he fall into the Smokey role quickly?
He fell into it pretty quickly for me. You gotta give F. Gary Gray a lot of credit. I give him a lot of credit just for the whole nuance of Smokey. You’re giving him a character, but also giving him room to do what he does best. He was great at it, and with all the actors. We have memorable performances, even if they’re small, little characters like Ezal. “Bye Felisha” is now the new term for “Get the fuck outta my face.”
Speaking of New Line, I’ve interviewed Bob Shaye, and he seems like a fair, nice guy. Was it a struggle to get financing and New Line on board for distribution?
Not at all. This was right in their wheelhouse. There’s a black lady named Helena Echegoyen who somehow got a hold of the script and basically tracked us down. She said, “New Line will give you what you guys need to make this movie, and here’s the key: we won’t mess with the script one bit. You do what you do.” We had always thought about going strictly independent with a movie like this because we felt like Hollywood wouldn’t understand the tone of the comedy. We thought they would just mess it up and turn it into some quirky-ass comedy.
New Line definitely takes chances, with Pink Flamingoes and Nightmare On Elm Street.
Bob Shaye was great for that. As the head of New Line, he kinda knew where his bread was buttered.
How did the rest of the cast come together? Immediately, I’m curious about John Witherspoon and whether you had the rest of the cast already in mind.
I definitely had John Witherspoon in mind to play my father. He always reminded me of a funny version of my father. It was a no-brainer once I saw his tone of comedy on some Robert Townshend specials. He did Boomerang with Eddie Murphy, and to me, he was another funny guy who was underused, so I really wanted him. I really wanted Tiny Lister. Bernie Mac was another comedian I had seen on Def Comedy Jam, and I knew that he could act if he was given a shot.
How about the actresses, like Nia Long and Regina King?
What was cool about Nia and Regina was that I had worked with them both on Boyz n the Hood, so I was damn near calling in a favor. Regina felt like one of my sister’s friends, so I knew she could play my sister. Nia Long always had that around the way girl kind of flavor. I just knew that those characters would work. It was cool doing comedy with them, because it was taking them out of their elements, too. Well, Regina had done 227, so I knew she had comedic timing.
Most of the script is based on characters from your real life, correct?
Everything that happened in Friday has happened on my street, at one point or another. All of these characters are derived, or inspired by real people. My father wore coveralls all the time, but my Uncle was the dogcatcher. Deebo was this dude in our hood, I don’t want to give up his name because he might want some money [Laughs.] These characters, and these situations, are real and that’s why they play. That’s why they work and people respond to them.
I’m curious about your working relationship with F. Gary Gray. Were you totally in sync on set, after working on videos together?
Gary Gray wasn’t from our neighborhood, but close to it. He was a young guy doing music videos. I wanted him to shoot one of my videos, and he shot a video for me called “True to the Game”. I knew he was talented, and I knew he knew the neighborhood. I didn’t have to teach him those little nuances about growing up where I grew up. He also knew how to shoot and was a cameraman, so he knew how to set up a shot. When it was time to direct Friday, he was the guy I wanted. He would know to hang the Chuck Taylors from the telephone wire. He knew that. I didn’t need to teach him that. He knew Deebo would be on a big beach cruiser, because gangsters, at least in the ’80s, used to ride around on those. He knew all these things and I didn’t have to teach him.
Where did you shoot? Did you encounter any problems with locals?
We shot on F. Gary Gray’s street, the neighborhood he grew up in. South Central, LA. It’s about six or seven miles west of Compton. We shot for 20 days. Five days a week and getting it in two or three takes. That was crazy.
I was 13 when it came out, but I remember it being a slow burn to success, mostly through word of mouth and home video.
The flaw to me with the movie industry, especially at that time, is that they didn’t believe in these kinds of movies to the point that they marketed them, or even distributed them, at a high level. I think we were on 900 screens around the country. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to a movie like 22 Jump Street. That was on 3,000, 4,000 screens. It’s hard to compete on that level. The advertising and everything else with a black movie is lower. That said, we weren’t even able to compete in the theaters at that time. The testament of this movie is DVDs, rentals, seeing it on TV, Pay-Per-View, and the ratings it got when they put it on the USA Network. They started realizing that this is one of those cult classics.
What are some of your favorite memories from the set? I always wondered if you were really smoking weed.
[Laughs.] Nah. We weren’t smoking weed. I had to stay focused as this was our first movie. I didn’t want to be high. I wanted to be sober and make sure things were working. I can’t talk for the other people in the cast though.
Is Last Friday still stuck in development hell? There’s a working script ready to go?
Yeah, but I got a script that I love. To me, that’s all that matters. It’s not show business. It’s business show. Those movies were made for small amounts of money. The first one was 2.3 million. Second one was probably a little over 10. The last one was probably 17 maybe. With this one, they can’t see spending the money above the line that’s needed to get all these stars back. They weren’t stars when we first did the movies, but they’re stars now. I want to see them back, and you don’t want to bring in new characters all the time. So, that’s where we are. In the corporate ladder when you look at the numbers, it doesn’t make sense for them. If they look at the fans and the fans’ hearts, it makes total sense to me.
Have you thought about crowdfunding?
We’ve thought about those things, but we still have to do the movie through New Line. It’s not just funding the movie, but marketing, promotion, and pushing the movie. It’s convincing them that this little-bitty movie has turned into this big phenomenon. I can convince New Line at the creative level, it’s just hard for them to wrap their heads around it at the corporate level. People know how much the fans love these movies, and they deserve another one. That’s what we’re in the fucking entertainment business to do, which is give the fans what they want. If not that, what the fuck are we doing then?
Is the first Friday the one closest to your heart in the entire franchise?
Yes it is, because it was my first screenplay that got bought and made, and the first movie I ever produced. It launched a lot of movie careers. To me, it’s right there with Boyz n the Hood, close to my heart.