Catching up with Advisory Board member Reginald Hudlin AB '83 (Writer, Producer, & Director)

By Stephanie Ferrarie AB '18

Reginald Hudlin AB '83 is in production with upcoming Disney+ feature, Safety, a drama based on the life of football player Ray McFirathbey. A writer, producer, and director, Hudlin has been nominated for an Academy Award and was the President of BET. Hudlin is also a Harvardwood Advisory Board member.

hudlin.jpgQ. What was your family life like growing up?

A. I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois. There’s St. Louis, Missouri, then the Mississippi River, then it’s East St. Louis, Illinois which is a small town where I grew up. My dad was an insurance agent. My mother was an educator. I had two older brothers. You know, it was a small town, virtually all black, economically very depressed, culturally very rich. I had a wonderful childhood.

Q. How did you become interested in film?

A. We come from a family of story-tellers. All my uncles—I had five uncles on my dad’s side-- they all had different careers: some were military, some were businessmen, some were academics. We would get together at family gatherings and they’d tell stories and argue about politics.

Me and my friends, in addition to playing baseball and football, we would play “laugh in,” basically you would stand there and try to make the other people laugh, and you couldn’t sit down until you made the other people laugh and they would have to take your place. It’s a brutal comedy training process, because they’re trying hard not to laugh so you've got to overcome their willpower.

And what we found out after I was an adult, after I had entered the movie business, I actually had an ancestor, Richard Hudlin, who was a filmmaker at the beginning of the 20th century who made movies on the same mission as me and my brother would a century later. We just wanted to show a nuanced and realistic portrayal of black life.

Q. How did your creative relationship with your brother [and early collaborator] Warrington develop?

A. We did not have access to film equipment or anything like that when we were kids. We didn’t even take that many photographs. But he studied film as an undergraduate at Yale. He went on to become a philosophy major, but got intrigued by filmmaking and started making documentaries while he was there. That opened my eyes to the possibilities of making movies. Even though Hollywood may shut us out, you could make a film outside of the system, so I became aware of what we now call independent film. So I wanted to do the same thing [as Warrington], though I was determined to work in Hollywood. I had no way of knowing how to do that, to make my way into the system, but that was my personal goal.

Q. What was studying film at Harvard like?

A. It was great. The program was an Honors-only program at Harvard: Visual and Environmental Studies. My understanding is that there were some forces within the university that didn’t think the arts were a legitimate field of study, so they figured if it’s an interdisciplinary program that was honors only that it would be kind of worthy. But it turned out to be a really great program. You studied photography, you studied architecture, you studied a lot of different interrelated fields, and you specialized in one thing, which in my case was film. We had great professors who taught us a lot of how to think about film. [It was] very different [from] how it’s taught at other film programs: much more documentary-oriented, a lot of study of foreign film, not commercially-minded at all. Not that we didn’t look at Hollywood films, but not with the same level of intensity that other programs might. There was no class where you could focus on screenwriting or that kind of thing. Our class (Class of '83)—we all decided that we wanted to make those kinds of movies any way. So for our senior thesis, we had a mini revolt and a lot of us did scripted films for our senior thesis.

Q. And what was your thesis?

A. Mine was this 20-minute short movie called House Party. It was based on stories that I had collected from my childhood, from my brothers and my own experience, about this kid who wants to go to a party his friends are having, his father doesn’t allow him, he sneaks out, he has a great time, he sneaks back in and gets caught. That became the seed of my first feature film, which is also called House Party, an extended version of that premise.

Q. What role did House Party play as a “calling card” as you were beginning to start your career?

A. I had done three short films like that so I had a couple of pieces to show people, but House Party was the most popular of the three. So yeah, it was sort of my calling card. Then I got a job in Hollywood writing a script for a movie I could possibly direct [Janet Jackson and the Time]. That movie didn’t happen, but it paid me enough money so I could either buy a car or a computer, because back then they cost about the same amount of money. So I decided to buy the computer because that would make me more money than a car. I wrote a feature-length version of the House Party script and said, “This is a movie I could make cheap enough that if I had to pay for it myself, I could do it.” But then I ended up selling it to New Line and that became my first feature, [which I also directed].

Q. After graduation, did you move to New York or Los Angeles?

A.I moved to New York and I lived with my brother for a while. I worked in advertising briefly. I made House Party, then I made my second and third movies; I made a movie with Eddie Murphy called Boomerang. At the same time, I made an animated feature called Bebe’s Kids. So after doing all three of those movies, I made a lot of money so I knew I had to buy a house or have a family or something. And at the same time, I was getting more offers for more projects, so I decided to move to Los Angeles and make my base of operations there.

Q. So by the time you moved to LA, you were a working writer and director? How did you become a director?

A. You just kind of do it. You have your day job and then you write when you can—that’s late at night, that’s early in the morning, over the weekends, whenever you can do it. You just have to make a movie that’s inexpensive, that seems like it’s in your capacity to do and hopefully you find someone who will bet on you. With House Party, every major studio passed. New Line Cinema was a very small company and they were kind of the last stop. They said, “This looks like a good idea. It’s only going to cost a few million bucks. Let’s take a risk on this kid.”

Q. What did you do when you moved to Los Angeles?

A. I started working in television as well. I was developing television projects as well as movie projects. I did a special for HBO, developed a bunch of other stuff, made a few more movies, and then got a job offer to run a television network so I ended up becoming the President of Entertainment at BET. So after working in TV and film, I ended up on the other side of the desk for several years.

Q. What did you think about being on “the other side” as a network executive?

A. I liked it. I liked the job. I liked the resources. I liked being able to work on a wide range of films. I loved building a news division from scratch. I liked building a home video division from scratch. I loved learning about being on the other side of the desk. It’s really easy as a creative person to think of the studio and the network as the enemy, but they’re not necessarily the enemy. When I changed perspectives, it made me better at my job being a writer and a director. It made me more sympathetic to executives and the institutions because they want the same thing you want, which is something that’s successful. It really changed how I worked with them today, having been on the other side. I think everyone should switch jobs—I like think executives should make things, I think creatives should be executives. Just for a year, just for a couple of months! Just to learn and empathize with the other side a little better.

Q. What did you find was different between TV and film, in either directing or writing?

A. Well, a lot of it’s the same: it’s how you hold their attention. The difference is in increments. In a movie, you want them to watch for two hours. One of the toughest things is to get people to go to the movies, to get out of their house, drive to a movie theater, and buy tickets. In television, the advantage is you are at home, so you want them to flip to your channel and watch your show, but you want them to stop flipping: come to your show, sit down, and pay attention. The need of starting out the gate really great and getting people’s attention is really important and then holding people’s attention. It’s very tough to make sure that they don’t put the remote down, that they hang in there through commercials because you’ve made an engaging product.

Q. Do you have any favorite sitcoms or shows that you’ve directed?

A. I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of amazing creative people. I’ve done a lot of shows with Steven Bochco, who was really a mentor to me. He’s a legend of the television business: NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, LA Law—all these great shows. He really taught me a lot about television, about life in general. He really became a real mentor and a dear friend to me.

Last year, I just did two great shows. I did The Last OG with Tracy Morgan and Tiffany Haddish. Tracy and I had known each other for a long time and we just had so much fun working together. And Tiffany, we met and clicked and got along, so that was a great experience. And then on Black Monday, Don Cheadle—and I’d always been a fan of Don’s for a long time—working on that show was great and the producers of the show were really talented guys who I had worked with on other instances, so we just had a great time making an innovative show together. I’ve had a lot of great television experiences, but those are just a few off the top.

The Office is great because it’s such a legendary show. My kids love The Office, and they love the episode I did, which is called “Koi Pond.” And apparently they found this whole online thread about it where all these people were huge fans of that particular episode and that makes me particularly happy to hear about that kind of love.

I also did a couple of episodes of the first season of Modern Family. It was great because when I turned in my episode, the network kind of watched it blind—they didn’t know who had directed it. They were like, “Why is this episode so good? What’s different about this episode?” Then they said, “Oh! Reggie directed it!” They actually aired it as the third episode or something. They moved it up in the schedule because everyone liked it so much. That was a really proud moment because that’s a great show and to work on that early on, in the ground floor of the show, was a real treat.

Q. What’s it like directing a TV show in the first season (like Modern Family) before there’s been established success, fan bases, and expectations, versus coming into a show like The Office in the fourth or fifth season when it has a rhythm going? Do you approach differently? Is there an element of fan service, or are you just going to do what you’re going to do?

A. I think it’s easier to come in early. With a case like Modern Family, the pilot was fantastic, maybe one of the greatest pilots I’d seen in my life. So it was very clear what the show was when you saw the pilot: this is smart, this is funny, this is relevant, this is innovative. So all you want to do is make something as great as that pilot, like meet it or beat it, right? I think it’s tougher when you come later into a show because by that time it’s like, “Look, we know what the show is, you’re just the guy of the week,” so it’s harder to make a difference, which is why I’m proud of the "Koi Pond" episode because that was in season 6 [of The Office]. I had this idea about how to shoot the incident with the koi pond. I said, “Let’s do it as a surveillance camera. It’s gonna be black and white. At a fixed angle so it’s going to be panning back and forth, so you kind of see stuff, and then you don’t see stuff.” The entire cast really responded to that visual approach. And when you talk about that cast, these are brilliant, smart, super talented people—anything that excites them is really rewarding, so I’m really happy to do that.

Q. Can you talk about your interest in graphic novels and how you’ve incorporated that into your work in TV and film?

A. I have always loved comic books my whole life. So that’s a big, integral part of my success. The idea of working in comic books was something I always wanted to do. I still have my rejection letter from Marvel that I got when I was in elementary school. [Later on] some friends introduced me to the top executives of Marvel, and I just met with them, not with any goal of work but just because I was a fan. And at the end of the meeting, they were like, “What book do you want to write?” I said: “Wha-what? That’s not why I’m here but… I don’t know, Black Panther?” And they said, “Sure! Six issue mini-series.” So I left with an assignment.

I was really excited, because I've always loved Black Panther. [After] I wrote those six issues, they said, “What would you do if you kept going?” I told them the next idea and they said, “Just keep writing!” I ended up writing Black Panther for three and a half years, 22 pages a month for that whole time. I’m very proud that the books sold very well. I was never late—I met my deadlines, even while running BET. And a lot of the ideas that I had established in the book were later reflected in the movie that was made. While doing the book, I was also running BET, and we came up with the idea of doing a Black Panther animated series. I ended up doing something that may have only been done once in history. As the head of a network, I greenlit my show and then left the network to become its producer and produce the TV show based on my book that I greenlit as president. It was pretty crazy, but it was a really wonderful experience.

Q. So what was your involvement in the movie Black Panther?

A. The movie had its own creative team, but it was great because at the premiere, I took my son and afterwards we saw Letitia Wright, who played Shuri, Black Panther’s little sister. And I made up Shuri—Black Panther never had a little sister before me. So I said, “Hey Letitia, I’m Reggie Hudlin.” And she said, “I know who you are!” which was really nice. And then I took a picture of her with my son, which is just a really wonderful moment.

Q. What was it like being nominated for an Oscar, Best Picture for Django Unchained?

A. It was a good thing. The fact is, Quentin Tarantino is a genius and being able to work with him was a wonderful experience, and I learned so much. We’d been friends for a while, but working with him was a whole other experience. He creates a spectacular work environment that really leads to everyone doing their best work. So for [Django Unchained] to be recognized both by the movie-goers supporting the movie and becoming a giant success, but then to be nominated and win so many awards for writing, for acting, it was very wonderful, very gratifying.

Q. What is the idea behind Black Movie Soundtrack at the Hollywood Bowl?

A. It kind of started from that nomination for Django. I had been an Academy member for a long time and they approached me and were like, “We want you to be more involved in the Academy.” I said, “I want to be involved.” So I said, “Look, I really love seeing music at the Hollywood Bowl”—it’s my favorite music venue and I love movie nights where they show films and clips. They have live music from the Hollywood Bowl orchestra to accompany the movies. So I said I wanted to do that, but showing clips from different periods of black film, from the jazz age to '70s blaxploitation through the '80s and '90s to today. And they said, “That sounds great!” So I did the show and no one really knew what it was; at one point, both the Academy and the Bowl were like, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” And instead I sort of forced it into existence. And [in the end] they said, “Oh my God, this is great.” It was a huge success, critically and commercially. And we [decided to] do it every other year. The second year, it was even bigger and we got Gladys Knight, Earth, Wind and Fire, Common, Baby Face, all these great artists to come participate. And this year is even bigger. We’ve got an unbelievable line-up of guest stars coming to sing with the orchestra and an all-star band. It’s really a great time.

Q. So it’s a new program every year?

A. Some songs we bring back. If you don’t do “Shaft,” people are mad. We have different guest artists, different songs every year, different clips every year. People just really love it.

Q. Was your work on The Black Godfather your first documentary?

A. Yes, it was my first feature-length documentary, which is crazy because documentary was our primary focus as a film student at Harvard, but I had been doing scripted movies and TV all this time. But documentary was absolutely the best way to tell this story because quite frankly, it’s such an amazing story that you wouldn’t believe it was true unless you proved that it was a true story. And even in my approach to filmmaking, I really tried, for each part of the story, to have multiple people tell the same part of the story because I wanted people to believe that this really happened. You heard it from Andrew Young, you heard it from Clarence, you heard it from somebody who attended the event—it turns out all the stories are so fantastic. I just wanted to let people know, “Yep, here are multiple witnesses. This is a true story.”

Q. How did you come across the story about Clarence?

A. I knew about Clarence when I was young, living in New York doing music videos. All my friends in the music business knew Clarence. All of them were in awe of him. They were guys—Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell—they were starting their own record labels and they were dealing with top executives at the companies. And then there was a level beyond top executives, and that’s the level where Clarence was. He was the Zeus of show business. So when I finally met him, it was pretty awesome. Through him, I ended up getting my first job in the movie business, which was writing a script for Janet Jackson and the Time, and that was the job that got me enough money to buy a computer for me to write the spec script for House Party.

I’ve known him my whole professional life, so I’ve always been deeply grateful for him and everything that he’s done for so many people, not just for myself, but everybody. I always thought I knew his story, but the truth is, when we started making the movie, we realized there were all these things that he did that we didn’t know about and there were constantly new stories, new testimony to things that he’s done helping folks.

Q. Who are the influences on your work?

A. I’m influenced by so many filmmakers, from Akira Kurasawa to Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh. I’m constantly watching movies and being in awe of great storytelling, whether it’s a first-time filmmaker or a long-time veteran or some foreign film that very few people have seen. There’s so many ways to continue to be inspired, so that’s what I look for—a new reason to go: “Oh! I love that! I want to do that!” That’s the thing that keeps you going, that desire to work with your hands. Even as big as a movie project is, when you can do something that feels home-made, that feels like it reflects your spirit, that’s the most satisfying experience.

Q. Do you have any advice for young people trying to direct?

A. Yeah, go direct. I mean, the difference between when I was a kid to now is that most people have a phone in their pocket that is more powerful than the computers at NASA when they went to the moon. And with that phone in their pocket, they can film something, edit something, they can put it on YouTube or iTunes and have the whole world see it. The resources that are available to them, even outside of an academic setting, are incredible. Usually you would have to go to film school to get access to equipment and all that. But you can do that no matter what.

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