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Charles Stone III Talks the ‘Incredibly Flawed’ Heroes of “Uncle Drew,” “Mr. 3000,” and “Drumline”

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For a director whose visibility was jump-started by Budweiser commercials in which men clench at the thought of spending a night in front of the TV with the girlfriend, Charles Stone III has amassed a deceptively impressive track record of emotional integrity within today’s Hollywood apparatus. Starting with 2002’s one-two punch of Paid in Full and Drumline — the former a process-minded portrait of drug-dealing in Eighties Harlem; the latter an emphatic marching-band drama — Stone has exhibited a special combination of stylistic gusto and pleasingly accessible pop psychology. His characters — whether Nick Cannon’s gifted but unbridled Devon Miles in Drumline, Bernie Mac’s riotously self-centered Stan Ross in Mr. 3000 (2004), or Kyrie Irving’s weathered and wisdom-dispensing Uncle Drew in Stone’s latest, Uncle Drew — are all formidably talented creators in need of major internal growth. With Uncle Drew set to enjoy its second weekend in theatrical release, Stone spoke to the Voice about collaborating with world-class athletes, the joy of depicting generational differences, and the smoldering chemistry of Bernie Mac and Angela Bassett in Mr. 3000.

To start with Paid in Full: That movie has a screenplay credit for Thulani Davis, who was a longtime writer at the Voice. Can you talk about that collaboration and how it came about?

I’m close with Thulani. Especially as a young adult, once I got out of art school. She always had great advice. But I also appreciated her own writing, her own novels. 1959 was really cool. Also My Confederate Kinfolk. She and I used to have discussions about comic-book heroes, especially when The Dark Knight Returns came out — Frank Miller’s reinvention of Batman. I did love the fact that she understood the hero’s tale. She herself is a Buddhist priest, and a novelist, and a poet, and a librettist. She’s a jack-of-all-trades. A lot of times, in the work that I do, I like to work with people who are multifaceted, who have multiple dimensions to their storytelling art. She had written a lot of plays. I did a draft myself before I brought her on. And then I thought she was the perfect fit to bring on after that.

I’ve read that you’re an alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design, but I don’t know much about what you studied there. Was the plan always to be a director?

I [was] a lover of animation growing up. Then, when Star Wars came out — I must have been around ten — it just blew my world wide open. That’s when I knew I wanted to be involved in live-action filmmaking. But it was funny that I thought I was going to be a special effects supervisor. That was the term I remember reading. I used to collect Cinefex magazines, Cinefantastique, [and other] popular special effects and sci-fi cinema publications. I was absorbing how the effects were done. I figured I was going to go to college and major in animation. The thing that was interesting about my experience at RISD is [that] I got involved in a lot of different things. Animation was the goal, and that was my major. But I’m also a drummer, so I was playing in funk bands. I used to be a DJ, so I would spin Chicago house music and old disco. I was doing theater at Brown University. [I was doing] stand-up comedy. I had my hand in different things throughout this process.

From there, [I] graduated, moved to New York. I figured I was going to work for a small production company doing animation and effects, which I did. I actually asked the owners of the company, “Look, if I could get a music video, would you all produce it?” They were like, “Yeah, sure.” I submitted my animated shorts to the band Living Colour. I also ran into Vernon Reid, who’s now a dear friend of mine, and introduced myself. About six months later, in April of ’89, their manager called me and said, “We’ve got $10,000. Want to do a small music video?” It was for the song called “Funny Vibe.” I already had ideas written out for that. I gladly did it, and it was a big success. Of course, that took my music-video directing career off. I did that for the next six to eight years, before features.

You’ve made sports movies before, but nothing quite comparable to Uncle Drew and its peculiar casting mixture of athletes and comedians. What was it like navigating those two extremes?

It hearkens back to what we just talked about — all the different things I was doing in college. When I speak to students, I always say, “A director should understand all the various avenues of making a movie.” It’s only going to help your performance, in terms of getting what you want. With regards to the stand-up comedians, I’ve done stand-up, so I’m sensitive to the talent that they have, which is typically improvisational. In comedies, it’s not only the storyline: You want to maximize the jokes. [It should be] within the structure of the script and the story and the character development, but still, that can be sculpted in the edit. For me, it’s about allowing them to really run and explore the idea. We did 25- to 30-minute takes of J.B. Smoove and Mike Epps — crazy, crazy stuff. They’d go way over the deep end. [Laughs] But the point is to allow for that to happen.

With the basketball players, each of them had a different level of experience in terms of muscle development in acting. I spent time with the NBA players, separately — because we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal — just talking about their life. Because my thought is to maybe have [them] draw on life experiences in order to get into character or define an emotional moment. We also had an acting coach: Adam Lazarre-White, who’s an actor himself, and used to be an athlete. He was a quarterback for Harvard back in the day. He spoke the language of athletes. So it’s just respecting each person’s level of acting ability and using certain tactics to get them to realize the characters.

Uncle Drew is structured as a kind of road movie. It has multiple delightful scenes set at gas stations, one in which the squad of geezers gets blown out by a state-champion girls’ team. How did you approach the road-movie concept?

Yeah, the structure of the story is basically a road trip of sorts, but we expanded it. I always wanted to do a road-trip movie because they allow for focusing in on one or two characters. It’s intimate. They’re in a car — in this case, a van — and they’re traveling long distances. A lot of the character interaction happens in a very closed, intimate space. [Also] typically road trips involve the main character or co-leads having fish-out-of-water experiences. For Dax [Lil Rel Howery’s character], definitely: The first guy he meets is a fiery preacher who’s going to slam-dunk a baby. [Laughs] And he has a cantankerous wife. The next dude is blind. These are the people that are supposed to be on the super-team. The next [guy] can’t fucking walk. So the joy of doing a road trip is that they experience new things, and that fish-out-of-water element makes it funny, especially if you have interesting actors. I think Rel’s a funny bouncing board. When he’s in a situation where he’s not in his element, he’s funny just in his reactions.

What’s also important about a road-trip movie is that there is a definite progression — things get more intense. In this case, things became more outlandish — from a literal preacher to someone who’s blind to someone who is a paraplegic, or appears to be. The last person is a giant who’s angry at the guy who’s bringing them all back together and knocks him out in the kung fu studio. Then they go into a crazy chase with a car going backwards. That’s important: that there be a dramatic and comedic progression, that things expand and enlarge and get more animated or emotional. Because you’re trying to get to a certain point and [make] sure that the stakes are building and getting heavier, like a ticking clock.

Going back to Paid in Full, in which Ace (Wood Harris) argues with dry cleaner owner Pip (Chi McBride) over taste in music, your movies have toyed with humor from a generational perspective. Even Mr. 3000 wrings comedy from the scenario of a pushing-fifty man returning to a baseball league of twenty- and thirty-year-olds. Can you pinpoint why you’ve been drawn to this sort of material?

Definitely [with] my upbringing with relatives, I have a fondness for those sage folk. Everyone’s done that: Eddie Murphy, in his first big debut, Delirious, talks about his uncles and parents and all of that. Lil Rel is inspired by his uncle in a lot of his work. I’m also very much in tune with my generation, with what I like. With Mr. 3000, having all that Earth, Wind & Fire music that represents [Stan]. Same thing with Uncle Drew. And that was something I pitched to the producer and the writer: that I wanted to magnify the generational differences. I designed the concept of [Dax and Drew] arguing over a song based on generations. And what better to use than hip-hop that samples from the past? I love my generation’s music, and I love and respect my relatives, the Sixties and Fifties, as well. It goes both ways.

Mr. 3000 is one of my favorite sports movies, in part because of its core teamwork-over-individuality theme. Many sports-movie heroes  like Robert Redford in The Natural  tend to be ostracized by their greatness or their loner mentality. But the arc of the Bernie Mac character in Mr. 3000 is all about discovering humility. Can you talk about that?

First of all, [with] sports movies in general, the sport is interchangeable. I respect basketball, I enjoy it, but I’m not fanatical. Whereas Jay Longino, the writer [of Uncle Drew], played semi-pro and international ball. He loves it. To me, he created a love letter to basketball in this script. But for me, you can switch out the sport. Or it can be a war. Like, wherever main characters have their mettle being tested, it’s important to me. As a filmmaker, I love to tell stories about incredibly talented people who are incredibly flawed as well. And incredible doesn’t necessarily connote complexity — just tremendous superpowers [and] then a flaw that is holding them back from fully realizing themselves. Devon in Drumline is this kid who has this amazing talent, but also he has this amazing hubris and ego. He doesn’t read music, which is an Achilles’ heel, but his talent expands to [hearing] something once and then being able to play it right back. He’s got a level of mental acuity that’s pretty high. He’s got this fire that comes with it. But the fire also fuels his ego, and, sure enough, he struggles to learn how to become a selfless team player.

And Mr. 3000: I first fell in love with that script because of the fucking title [laughs]. Like, anybody who calls himself by a [big-name] number like that…I’ll tell you what: This was during the period where Terrell Owens was on fire in the NFL. Owens was autographing footballs in the end zone, having a Sharpie in his sock. That’s fucking amazing — not positive or negative, but just in the neutral sense of the word. It’s incredible that there was that level of showmanship in the professional game. And ESPN, who’s been in a myriad of my films — Drumline, Mr. 3000, Uncle Drew — was, during that period, the stage that added fuel to the egotistical fire of these players. I remember Bryant Gumbel did a segment about linebackers in the NFL — it might have been college, but I’ll be safe and say the NFL — where they were trying to do flagrant sacks and hits because they were trying to get on the ESPN highlight reel. There was a mechanism that promoted solo acts of athletic ability as opposed to the collective.

This Mr. 3000 character also had this ability that a lot of great baseball hitters do, which is that he could read a pitch. I had a lot of cats tell me about being able to read the pitch based on seeing how the pitcher holds the ball. In the movie, he’s at bat, and he’s jawing it up with the pitcher who can’t stand him, the catcher who can’t stand him. The umpire doesn’t like him [laughs]. But he’s watching the pitcher, and then he sees the pitcher take the ball — first cradling the ball, then [putting] it behind his hip. He’s watching that. And it’s literally a close-up between his eyes watching [the pitcher] and a close-up of the pitcher’s hand on the ball. There’s some adjustment — the muscle in between the finger and the thumb just slides underneath the ball. And the slightest of smiles cracks the corner of Bernie’s mouth.

These [players] were telling me stories about batters who could do this. We had a consultant who played for the Mets. He was a pitcher, and he was explaining that there was this batter he could never fucking strike out. One day, after they had both left the game, he said to the dude, “You always frustrated me. I could never strike you out.” And the guy said something like, “I would see your finger just before you launch the ball — your finger would slide upward. I always knew when you were going to throw the fastball.” He’s identifying something literally with one finger — it was crazy. Again, it’s the idea that I like these characters that…the bigger they are, the harder the fall is going to be, and the more tremendous the struggle will be to figure it out. That moment when Stan Ross gets the winning ball and throws it into the stands — it gives me goosebumps. To throw it away is very powerful. That’s when I know it’s become an internal victory as opposed to an egotistical victory.

The Mr. 3000 scenes between Bernie Mac and Angela Bassett are remarkable for their banter and romantic energy. One interaction, in which Stan pours a drink for Maureen (Bassett) and the repartee turns into a colossal argument, is the stuff of high melodrama  far from your typical rah-rah sports movie. Can you talk about directing those two and how you captured that vulnerability within a seemingly laid-back baseball comedy?

I love that you’re bringing this up. First of all, I wanted Angela Bassett’s character to be this tomboy of sorts. I wanted it to be a role reversal, where she’s the one that’s trying to get that ass. Whereas Stan’s not doing that anymore. Which I love; I love that scene. First of all, it’s Angela Bassett. She’s classically trained, she’s an amazing actress. It was an honor to even work with her. But how that scene played out…I remember liking it, especially in the edit, because it made me feel weirdly uncomfortable. It’s seeing a man in a vulnerable position. I don’t just mean like, “He’s lost, therefore he’s vulnerable, or he’s sad.” You know what it’s like, to be honest? It’s like you’re having sex and then suddenly he loses his erection. It’s this weirdly embarrassing moment that’s also physically personified because they’re kissing and all of that and then something triggers him. His ego gets involved, and then his figurative erection drops real fast. Then he’s like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” And she’s laughing. He looks embarrassed. I’m obviously channeling, I’m connecting to that. I’ve had a moment or two like that. To see such a strapping man — such as Bernie — with a booming voice and a larger-than-life energy suddenly be diminished to a little kid with his pants down is trippy.

I always thought, when Bernie Mac was attached, that he had a dramatic underpinning to his spirit. People said to me, “He’s a comedian, but he’s not really an actor.” I thought, “Yeah, but the stories he tells me resonate in an emotional way.” He was very much connected to his past, his childhood, and what went around in his family. I knew he could access it. It’s actually quite ironic that he and I didn’t get along while shooting. Well, from my point of view; he has a point of view as well. But he was not comfortable having someone direct him. This is coming off The Bernie Mac Show, where he’s basically running the show. I told him at one point in the preproduction period, “Part of the process of becoming the character is to strip away who you are to become this character.” I found this out later from his manager, who said, “He really took offense to what you said.” Bernie said, apparently, “Who’s this person telling me to throw away 36 years of being a successful entertainer?” But if you tell this to an actor, they get it: This is what they do. They leave who they are at home, and they become this person. But Bernie was like, “You’re not going to fucking tell me to discard all that I’ve been successful doing.” So it was like pulling teeth a bit. But obviously it all worked in the end: My intent, and his intent, shows through.

By all measures, you’ve had an interesting 2018: a Netflix release in Step Sisters, a sort of Drumline companion piece of college-aged group dynamics; and Uncle Drew, a mid-budget studio comedy. Do those two poles give you any particular insight into where the industry is right now?

What you’re talking about, in terms of today’s media distribution, I find it to be incredibly humbling. I find it to be egotistically frustrating. [Laughs] Because I’m a person who loves experiencing movies in the cinema. I’m used to going to the event. And television — and it’s not even just television — but watching shows on a cellphone is commonplace now. It’s great, because content is content, and that’s what I mean about it being humbling. It doesn’t matter what the platform is. We’re still going to need to tell stories. That’s probably the good aspect of it. But Step Sisters was originally supposed to have a theatrical release. Then, unfortunately, we couldn’t make that happen, and Netflix was really into it, made us a great offer. Again, it hit millions of people. It’s a powerful distribution mechanism. It hit more people quicker than theaters. You can download it, and boom, you’re there. But it’s a smaller screen. It doesn’t mimic 250 people collectively experiencing an event at the same time, in the same room. That gets missed, obviously. Storytelling is storytelling, regardless of the medium. But I love the movie theater experience.

The thing that movies don’t do all the time that television can do incredibly well is get closer to what it feels like to read a novel. Because you’re living with the characters over weeks and you’re growing with them. If you do it craftily, and with a deft hand, it’s incredible. For me, Six Feet Under is probably the first series I remember watching all the way through [where], when the end came, it was resonant for me emotionally. It completed its arc. The best version of that is Breaking Bad, [for] which, frankly, Vince Gilligan knew where his character was going to go in the end. It just depended how long it was going to take him. But he understood that. I think when you understand that, the arc can be as long as you want, but you always have your eye on where the character ultimately has to go. I like television for that, and I’d love to be involved in designing a series, because I want to have that experience of living with characters [over] multiple chapters. Great movies are great movies, but it’s hard to achieve that level of intimacy.

 

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