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A leading figure in the burgeoning field of hip-hop theater, activist and community organizer Danny Hoch works as a monologist, actor, and filmmaker, exploring America's cultural and linguistic divides. His political activism and his work conducting theater workshops in prison have strongly influenced his one-man shows–particularly his latest, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, which has been adapted into two separate films. Whiteboys, a dark comedy about a deluded white would-be rapper obsessed with gangsta rap, was quietly released in 1999. A year later, Hoch also co-directed an unconventional film adaptation of his show, which only played in limited release due to legal woes and distribution problems. In addition to his three one-man shows, Hoch has appeared in such films as Bamboozled, Prison Song, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Hoch about hip-hop, jails, politics, and The Thin Red Line.
The Onion: How did you decide to turn Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop into a film?
Danny Hoch: My last play (Some People) was made into an HBO special. Although it had a lot of success, I felt like it was a little limited, because it was basically just a taped version of the play. The characters and stories in Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop had the potential to be more cinematic, and I felt that we could make a movie-movie out of it. But I wasn't sure how to go about it, so my original intention was just to make a whole bunch of films out of each character, and string them together. But as we were thinking about how to do that, we thought, "Well, it's going to be confusing. It's just going to look like a filmed version of sketches, like Tracey Ullman." We really wanted to make a solid film that people could watch for 90 minutes, so we said, "Okay, where is this all coming from? It's coming from the play. We can't lie: This was originally a play. Let's shoot the play in front of an audience. And on top of that, let's shoot the play in front of a hip-hop-generation audience in jail, because this is what the play is about anyway. And then, let's take each of these characters, and have each one be a short film with a fully dressed set and actors on location, and then see what we got and figure out how we might edit it." Actually, it was a bit contradictory to the way most movies are made. Usually, they shoot for about two months and edit for two months. This movie was shot in two weeks but edited in eight months, because it took forever to figure out when we were going to be in the jail performance, when we were going to be in the theater performance, and when we were going to be on location. Ultimately, the jail performance and the theater performance make up maybe 5 or 10 percent of what we're watching.
O: Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop has been held up by a lawsuit. What was the lawsuit about?
DH: It was about the music. We had a deal with a progressive hip-hop record company (Rawkus Records), who were at least progressive at the time. They were supposed to make the soundtrack and provide all the music in the film. And they did, and the trailer was in theaters, and we got a distributor and everything, and three months before the movie was going to be released, they pulled out. We don't know why. We think maybe they didn't understand what they were getting into, or they were going bankrupt and didn't have enough money to pay for all the rights and clearances that they had promised us. We don't really know what happened. Ultimately, they barked at our producers and our producers barked back at them, and all of a sudden we had no music. It took us a year and a half to... First, we were just trying to secure the music they had promised us, and then we realized that they weren't relenting, that they had some other plan. It was disillusioning. I really felt that if we were going to be with any label, that was the one to be with, because of the artists who were on their roster at the time. Ultimately, all those artists left, and we discovered the connections between Rawkus Records and Rupert Murdoch, and things started to fall into place.
O: If you had a soundtrack and Rawkus, it would probably be easier to get it distributed. It would give you a marketing hook.
DH: That's what we thought. Then we also realized that Rawkus had never done a soundtrack before. And although we were going to distribute it, saying, "Hey, we got this deal with Rawkus Records," movie distributors were like, "Who the fuck is Rawkus Records?" It was a little awkward, because we were being their championlike, "Hey, Rawkus Records is this great label. We want to hook you guys up." It was as if we were ushering them into the movie industry, and then they did this to us.
O: So you're distributing the movie yourself?
DH: It's not me. I don't own the movie.
O: But it's being released independently? How exactly did that happen?
DH: This is a very complicated way of a movie coming out. We had a distributor, Stratosphere Entertainment, and they were ready to release the film on March 3, 2000. They put trailers in the theaters, and they started doing press and everything. Then Rawkus' unwillingness to deliver what they had agreed to deliver made Stratosphere have to halt the film. They delayed it until April, then May, then June. Then Stratosphere got bought by Samuel Goldwyn, and when that happened, everybody at Stratosphere was fired, including the people that bought the film. So our film wound up on a shelf somewhere in Goldwyn's archives, and we needed it to come out. When we called to inquire about it and ultimately they did the research, they said, "Well, your movie is not free and clear, because you're still in litigation with this record company, so we don't know what you're calling us about anyway." Ultimately, because the people that bought the film weren't there anymore, they had no use for the film, so they un-bought it. It wound up back in the hands of the executive producers, and they were courting other distributors. But it's really hard with independent film. It's similar in the music industry as it is in the film industry, in terms of distribution. You're dealing with companies who want to spend as little as possible on a dozen projects. And it's basically like a gamble: Each one of those projects that they're spending very little money on, they're rolling the dice and hoping that one of them is going to hit. And it's not going to hit because they spent any real money on it; instead, it's going to hit for whatever reason. We didn't want to be one of a dozen films inside somebody's pocket that they were gambling on. We wanted someone behind it that wanted to spend money. That was a little hard to find, particularly this year, when a lot of studios were going out of business or getting bought up. The producer decided it was a better idea to do it independently. This is where hip-hop marketing comes from anyway: from doing your own street teams, buying your own ad time, and getting the word out yourself. That's how we got where we are.
O: Do you think your audience picks up on the political connotations of your work?
DH: Oh, yeah. We all articulate what is political in different ways. Some of them say, "Hey, you're really commenting on the prison-industrial complex and police brutality and people's validation of the media more than their own truths." But some people just say, "Hey, I liked it how you were really funny, but you were also saying something." Yeah, my audience is getting it.
O: At the same time, there's a stigma attached to work that's considered overtly political.
DH: I hope to not think that this is overtly political. Maybe if I were a cop I would think it was overtly political, or if I was a prison administrator I would think it was overtly political. But part of the design of the work is just to have it appear to be character work. And then issueswhether you call them social, economic, political, or even sociologicalare infused into it. To quote Lenny Bruce, you've got to get people laughing. Once you get them laughing, you can tell them anything. The question is, if we get them laughing, then what do we tell them?
O: Obviously, when you were in the prison, you were there for the prisoners, relating to them more directly. What was your relationship like with the prison hierarchy and the guards?
DH: It's been mixed. Some of the prison's administration is conscious of the problem. A lot of it is not. A lot of the prison administration, they're victims of the problem themselves, in terms of what they're required to do and where they stand as workers. It's tough, because whenever I go into a prison, even if I'm opening up minds or making people think, prison guards are just supposed to be tough and not let anything in. If they let anything in, it's usually defensive because they're on the defensive all day. It's the most stressful job in the United States. I've spoken to a bunch of guards in various facilities. Some of them are like, "Wow, what you're saying is really true. That prison guard you were playing, I know guys just like that. Not me, not me." But I think they relate to the frustration and the position that they're in, anywayeven the ones that get angry, that don't say anything. Some of them were giving me dirty looks afterwards, but I'm sure some stuff got through, and that's why they were giving me dirty looks.
O: As somebody who's spent a lot of time in prison, what do you think is the public's biggest misconception about prisons and prisoners?
DH: There's a lot of them. I think probably the greatest misconception is that people who are in prison are there because they made the wrong choice. In my mind, that's a misconception. The reality is that many people are in prison because they felt that they only had one choice. And there were no choices, no other options available to them. Another great misconception is that if all of the millions of people in the criminal-justice system would just go out and get jobs and be decent citizens, they wouldn't be in prison. But the reality is that if we shut down the corrections facilities of this country and freed every inmate, and correction officers could go home, we would be in an economic crisis that would be 20 times worse than the Great Depression. Because there are no jobs for those two million people that are behind bars, and people on probation and people on parole, and the million-some-odd corrections officers and drivers and glass installers and steelworkers and food-service people and medical technicians, and so on. That is another great misconception. It says something about society when you have to sustain your economy by imprisoning your own people.
O: How did performing Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop in front of a prison audience compare to performing it in front of a non-prison audience?
DH: The prison audience is the greater audience, because they are culture-starved inside, so if they are watching TV at all, it's Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake, and what is supposedly the news. They're really hungry for it, rather than the theater audience, which just saw Tom Stoppard the other night, and Paula Vogel the night before, and Shakespeare last week, and they've got their arms folded, and they're like, "Uh-huh, show me." The other reason, I think, is because a lot of the issues that are in the piece resonate on more levels with the audience that is imprisoned. You're talking about people who know about jail, and you're talking about people who have suffered police harassment and brutality, so it resonates on a lot of other levels. That's not to say that I don't have people in my theater audience who have all those experiences as well. But I'd say that with the prison audience, it definitely resonates more. The laughter is deeper and more immediate in its catharsis.
O: How do you think the time you spent doing prison theater workshops affected the way you write and perform?
DH: Profoundly. I'd been arrested a bunch of times as a teenager, but I'd never had to serve any time, or even had to be around other kids who were serving time. When I first started working on Rikers Island and the borough detention centers... Seeing the prison-industrial complex up close has a profound effect on anybody that goes there, whether you go to visit a relative or whether you go to teach a workshop, or whether you're a corrections officer or anyone.
O: You've done a lot of work with prisoners, dealing with the redemptive power of art. Do you feel like the arts are undervalued in American society?
DH: Of course they are, but part of that has to do with capitalism. Because we live in a society of dilution and packaging. That's pretty apparent. America has this thing where we act like we're improving on the arts. But actually what we're doing is making more diluted versions in order to sell more copies of whatever it is: an album, a play, a movie, a piece of art. Because those things proliferate, and because they're cheap, and because they're usually lacking substance, they lose value. So then, when we see something that is authentic and substantive and pure, we don't look at it as having value, because we associate it with all of the valueless copies that we've proliferated. This kid came to my show, like, "Yo, homeboy," with his hat to the side and his pants hanging off his ass. He came to my show four times and paid to get in, and he brought his friends, and I was blown away. He's like, "Hey, man, yeah, you know, I never seen anything like this. What is this?" And I said, "What do you mean, what is it?" And he said, "What do you call this that you're doing?" And I said, "Theater." And he said, "Nah. No, bullshit, it's not theater. What is it called?" And I said, "No, really, it's theater." And he said, "No, dude, if it was theater, it wouldn't be about me." And then he said, "When are you gonna be on Broadway?" And I said, "What do you mean? I'm not going to be on Broadway." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because if I was on Broadway, you wouldn't be able to afford the ticket. They wouldn't be marketing it to you. I would be marketing it to you, but that would be kind of a contradiction." And he's like, "Awww, nobody's going to see you if you're not on Broadway." It's like I'm not real if I'm not on Broadway. But the reality is that 99 percent of the stuff on Broadway has nothing to do with the people that live in New York City. The same for TV: 99 percent of the stuff on TV has nothing to do with people who live in the United States. So these little diluted, warped forms of art that are several generations beyond their original forms make us devalue art when we see it.
O: You've become semi-famous for turning down roles in television and film that you find ideologically distasteful. What do you say to people who say, "Why don't you just take the role? Swallow your pride, and then you could give the money to something worthwhile."
DH: I say, "Look at the bigger picture." I don't turn stuff down because it pays. I wish I could take a job that pays a lot of money, so I could use that money. I have, in some cases. I took the money for my HBO special and helped start a foundation. I took the money from Whiteboys and helped start the New York City Hip-Hop Theater Festival, and funded other community-based projects. We're talking about pennies compared to what people really make in Hollywood. It's not that I'm against the money, but what is the result of what I'm doing? What is the effect that it's gonna have on people watching?
O: There's been a lot of talk lately about cleaning up hip-hop's image, getting rid of some of the more negative aspects. Do you think that the labels and the powers-that-be are sincere in their desire to change, or do you think it's just a matter of trying to save face publicly?
DH: I don't know. I think it's dangerous if the goal is to clean up the image of hip-hop. I don't think we need to worry about the image of hip-hop. We need to worry about the essence of hip-hop. That's really the problem. It doesn't matter what hip-hop looks like, because hip-hop is rebellion and hip-hop is revolution. If you're worried about what revolution and rebellion looks like on the surface, then you're not committing rebellion and revolution. Ultimately, what is the essence of it? I think that's where hip-hop needs to be looked at and examined. I wouldn't necessarily say cleaned up. I mean, shit, the government needs to be cleaned up.
O: One role that you did take was in The Thin Red Line. What was that experience like?
DH: That was cool, because I got to play a Brooklyn soldier in the '40s. And I got to improvise a lot and do four really amazing scenes, but they all got cut out, along with 10 other actors, including the lead actor. The main character got cut out of the film.
O: Who played the lead character?
DH: Adrien Brody. Sony had, I guess, made the film originally. After they had made itand it was obviously expensive, like $80 to $100 millionthey ran out of money and had to sell the film, and they sold it to Fox. Fox decided to release it on Christmas Day, but they didn't want to release a five-and-a-half-hour film. So they cut three hours out. Basically, their rationale was, "Splice together all the scenes with the A-list actors that people will recognize." Because Woody Harrelson and George Clooney and John Travolta and all those folks, they really all had cameos, and the story of the film in the 192-page script was focused on Adrien Brody and Tim Blake Nelson and Larry Romano and Ben Chaplin's characters. They all got extracted.
O: Do you think that the five-and-a-half-hour version will be released in any form? Perhaps on DVD?
DH: It won't be on DVD, and it'll never be seen, because Fox is not interested in art. But I shouldn't even just think Fox. The entertainment industry is not interested in art. The entertainment industry is interested in what is the easiest packaging we can sell, en masse. That's about it. Even [Thin Red Line director] Terrence Malick was bamboozled, like many artists are, into making a film after not making films for 20 years, because he knew how full of shit Hollywood was. But they promised him, "No, no, we're going to make an epic, and you can do what you want, because we're going to have a five-and-a-half-hour film." But between Sony and Fox, we lost three hours of the film. That happens all the time. Shit, I know countless actors who are cut out of countless films, and some of them were the best scenes. Ultimately, unless you're Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, who are the only two directors in the world with final cut, it's up to the producers.
O: You've organized a conference on hip-hop and socialism. Why do you think there's such a negative perception of socialism in America?
DH: Because corporate America has great propaganda advertising. They've been propagandizing and advertising against anything that is remotely related to socialism, communism, any other -ism except capitalism and free enterprise. As if it's an evil, as if it restricts freedoms, as if it's going to imprison us. Meanwhile, look at our prison situation. It's a completely capitalist prison situation. That's the situation we're in.
O: It seems like a lot of the issues you explore, you explore as an outsider. Do you think it's possible to enact meaningful social change from within the system?
DH: That's the age-old question. I have that argument every day. I think it's possible both outside and inside. I don't know. I'm only 30, but from my experiences, I used to think it was only possible outside the system. But I see people inside the system who are changing it. You get depressed and disillusioned because you're inside the system, and you're up against so much, and you really feel alienated and ostracized by the very people in it. You almost have a freer feeling if you're on the outside and you feel like, "Oh, I have no responsibility or obligation. I have nothing to do with this, so I can just be a rebel here on the outside." But I see people on the outside and on the inside as being just as effective.