8 Mile took over my life for a time. I saw it on its opening day. I returned 3 or maybe 4 more times. I was a Slim Shady fan from the beginning and had felt apprehensive about the film, although I loved L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys. Curtis Hanson approached material like a storyteller, in the way the old-school directors used to do before everybody got self-important about their own personal vision. What matters is the story being told. A good director is versatile with style (this is more apparent in the theatre, where you could direct Oedipus and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in the same year.) Hanson delved into the worlds of the stories of his films, with an attention to detail that was both exacting but also fluid. MOOD was as important as getting the vintage cars right. If you just get the vintage cars right, but have no mood, then all you really have is an exercise in kitsch. So in 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical film showing Marshall Mather’s earliest years – the really bleak shit before Dr. Dre came along – Hanson dove into the world of underground rap battles, Detroit, and the unforgiving atmosphere from which Eminem emerged. One of the special features on the 8 Mile DVD shows Curtis Hanson putting together a “rap battle” for all of the extras in that final club scene. Those extras sweated it out for almost a week, having to keep their energy up, having to do it again and again, cheer, and howl … and it was a grind. To show he appreciated their being there (and those extras are SO important to that final scene – see clip above), he put out a call for any amateur rappers in the house, to do rap battles during the breaks, working their way up to a battle with the star himself, Eminem. Of course half the people there could spit rhymes. Curtis Hanson playing “emcee” for this rap battle was so touching. He was this gangly kind-faced white guy, holding a sheet of loose-leaf paper, calling out names of people to come up onstage. It was a very smart move, as a director, showing generosity and appreciation, of course, for the random people in Detroit who had showed up to be club-goers in those important scenes. He looked like a fish out of water, but he wasn’t, because he cared about this material, he had developed it WITH Eminem (who – more so than anyone else – was very very nervous about the film and how it would portray him. He just didn’t want it to be stupid of self-congratulatory. He wanted it to seem real.) Those amateur rap battles – in a bare break room with fluorescent lights – are so filled with adrenaline and energy and need and emotion – especially wen Eminem finally stepped up to battle with the winners – that it practically justifies the film’s existence, all on its own. It’s also a glimpse of a director at work, wearing multiple hats, caring about the material, caring about the environment and the people around him, creating a space where everyone can let loose a little bit, before going back to what he knows is a grueling and punishing schedule. YOU try to cheer for 3 days straight and “keep it fresh”!!
He was a wonderful director, one of my favorite kinds. Devoted to STORY.
Almost 10 years ago, I participated in a “Close-Up Blog-a-Thon,” hosted by Matt Seitz, where people wrote about their favorite close-ups in film.
I wrote about the close-up of Russell Crowe that opened L.A. Confidential.
Rest in peace.