On the way to our table inside an empty restaurant in the mid-afternoon on the first day of the ATX TV Fest, John Singleton walks toward our table near the window. On the way, he sees Damson Idris, who plays Franklin on his new show, Snowfall. After he introduces us, Singleton asks the young actor if he’s planning on attending the premiere screening of the pilot episode at the historic Paramount Theater just down the street later that night. Idris smiles sheepishly, before saying that he wasn’t sure if he would, fearing he’d be embarrassed watching himself in a crowded theater. Smiling back, Singleton encourages him to go, explaining that this might be the only time he gets to watch an episode on the big screen.
Singleton, of course, is used to seeing his work in that environment. At 24, he was the youngest person to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, earning the nod Boyz N the Hood in 1991. Since that debut, which told the story of what it meant to be young and black in South Central Los Angeles, he followed up with similar films, including Poetic Justice in 1993 and Baby Boy in 2001. He’s also helmed big-budget action movies, including the reboot of Shaft in 2000, and 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003.
More recently, Singleton has turned his focus to the small screen, directing episodes of shows like Empire and American Crime Story. His latest endeavor, Snowfall, which premieres this Wednesday July 5th on FX, is a period drama set in 1983 L.A., telling the story of the early days of the crack-cocaine epidemic. We got the chance to sit down with Singleton to talk about what inspired him to make Snowfall, and how the Peak TV era has helped him to tell his story the way he wants to.
What inspired you to tell this story, and to tell it on television?
They say in film school write about what you know, and so I took that to heart in film school and thought about writing about what was going on in my neighborhood in south central Los Angeles. I thought, “This is the story for me. This is the story before Boyz N the Hood. How did the neighborhood evolve into what it became?” I think I somehow had this in the back of my mind for many, many years.
Once I was starting to make the transition into television, I was like “What can I do? What’s the ghetto version of Game of Thrones?” Without dragons, you know what I mean? It was just to try to find a way to different characters, a multi-ethnic group of characters in a milieu in Los Angeles. So I was like “I got it! We’ll do something about how cocaine changed everything in L.A.” Because you have these stories, these various drug stories in different mediums, from film to TV that have been told. It’s always from Miami or the East Coast version of it. The West Coast version of it has never really been told, ever. Ever. Until now.
The Game of Thrones comparison is interesting, because you’ve got a lot of storylines going on at once, but most of the commercials we’ve seen so far are centered around the character of Franklin.
Yeah, yeah, but that’s good, because the surprise is gonna be when you [see] Gustavo and you see Teddy. That’s gonna be the MacGuffin, I think. It’s “Oh, okay. This is interesting.” I think it gives you something to look forward to.
It definitely covers a much wider spectrum behind this epidemic.
Yeah, the street and the hip-hop stuff gets them in, and then they find out it’s much more than that. An expansive world, you know?
What kind of preparation had to be done for the CIA storyline?
Everything had to be researched. Everything had to be researched. There’s still a lot of stuff that’s kinda classified and everything, but I guess we relied on sources of a sample of history to flesh it all out. This young agent, Teddy, he takes it on, he feels if he does this, maybe he can redeem himself in a way within the agency, move up the chain.
Was it a challenge finding a network to get behind it?
No. It wasn’t a bad mission. I pitched it at Showtime and Showtime bought it and developed it. They didn’t know what to do with it. In the same week Showtime put it in turnaround, we were at FX. I think it was great, because it was a transitional time between Sons of Anarchy going off the air, and I think they needed a gangster show. I was like “We got the gangster show!” That’s what FX does, man. If you’ve seen their programming, it’s like you’re watching rated-R movies every night. That’s what I loved about them as partners. There’s nothing that we can’t really do.
And they let you tell the story how you needed to tell it?
Exactly. We can curse, we can whatever. I don’t think we’re doing anything more wild than what Kurt Sutter did on Sons of Anarchy.
Outside of your own personal experience, what were some of the shows that you were looking at as influences, in terms of the larger narrative?
Well, for me, it wasn’t a matter of being influenced by other shows as much as it is taking what worked in other shows in terms of the cultural weight of characters and then seeing how do you apply this to Los Angeles at this time. Like a show like The Sopranos, there were things in that, unless you were uniquely Italian, you wouldn’t really get, but the audience would feel the authenticity of it. I think that’s what I really got form that. And Breaking Bad, not for the drug content, but the whole thing of having characters that are very, very flawed that an audience will follow from week to week and grew from there. I read this book, I forget the author’s name, called Difficult Men [by Brett Martin]. I don’t know if you ever heard of it.
I have yet to read it, but I know of it.
Yeah, Difficult Men. It’s about how television was changed through The Sopranos and through David Chase’s work. Then just some stuff about David Simon and Ed Burns and what they did in The Wire. There was a kind of continuity of how they had a sense of the authenticity of the worlds in which they were created. I said, “I gotta do this. I could do this for L.A. in my sleep,” you know what I’m saying? Cause I lived this life. I was like “Okay, I’m gonna go for it in this way.”
The Wire seems to be the first show a lot of people will compare Snowfall to. At least at first.
Yeah, but this show is more fun than The Wire. The Wire was great, brilliant television. [But] The Wire was more reportage. This is more ’80s Baroque. I love The Wire, but it’s amazing that people that are from that environment, that are from Baltimore, they didn’t like The Wire because it was so real. It was a downer for them. There were bad memories of it. People from South Central, they wax poetically or romantically about the times in which transition from coke to crack came in and people had money. Yes, it was dangerous and violent and everything, but the music was great. The fashion was cool. They remember those times fondly. But they were very bad times. Even myself.
I see what you’re saying. You’ve not only you’ve got a great soundtrack going, but there’s moments of humor sprinkled throughout.
You have to. I think that the best narratives are more a reflection of life than they are. “Okay, we’re going to make a dramatic show. There’s not going to be any humor at all,” [or] “We’re gonna make a great humorous show, but there’s no drama involved.” Then there’s these cools swaths of programming that you’ve seen over the last 15 years. The shows can’t be defined by genres. Any of those shows I talked to you before, they had different elements of human condition in them. That’s what we try to go for.
It sounds like the last 15 years of TV, the dawning of Peak TV, not only inspired you, but freed you up to tell the story the way you needed to tell it.
Yes, exactly. It’s what you call the slow burn. Don’t try to do everything at once, you know?
It’s clear in these first few episodes that you really appreciate being able to take your time, allowing us to really invest in these characters.
You really feel for them. You feel for the journey. You’re not just waiting for that to come. You really care for these characters, and you see a kind of a loss of innocence in the Franklin character.
But you still empathize with them, Franklin in particular. You understand his decisions and why he’s doing it. Was making these characters relatable to a wider audience a concern at any point?
No, not at all. I don’t ever think like that. I think in terms of as authentic as possible as I make it, the audience will find it. It’s like a rap record or a good soul record or whatever, you just make it as authentic as possible and they audience will find it.
I wasn’t trying to make him nicey-nicey. We had debates in the writers’ room. I don’t think anybody that, if you’re a survivor in that environment, [who] had to really learn, I don’t think anybody is squeaky clean. I wanted to have him have even more shades of gray all the way through. We got a fine line there.
Do you think you’d have been able to bring this to TV ten years ago?
No. Ten years ago, 20 years ago. I remember after Boyz N the Hood came out, my agent said “Man, you should try to get you some [TV stuff] run.” I said “I want to do some of the hood stuff.” The executives were like “Nobody wants to see Boyz n the Hood every week on television.” You know what? They did. They was wrong then.
How long are you hoping for this will go? Do you have a certain number of seasons planned out, or an end game in mind?
No, I don’t, but this first season is only six months, less than six months, in the life of these characters, so we can go. Things change so rapidly within that brief period of time. I’ve got it figured out for a long time, and I won’t have to make up and be way unimaginative about the fantastic things that happen within this world.
There’s definitely no shortage of tension. The stakes here are very, very high.
And it gets better, and then it gets worse. And then it gets worse and worse and worse and worse and worse. The more successful any of these characters become, what amount Teddy does what he does, Gustavo does what he does, Franklin does what he does. The better it gets, the worse it gets, and that’s what’s interesting to think about the whole thing. The stakes are higher.