INT: So you were talking about…
SL: So Russell [Russell Simmons] and I went into--and Sandy Wernick--went into Chris Albrecht, Carolyn Strauss took us in, and we convinced him to pick up four shows [DEF COMEDY JAM], or rather he offered to pick up four shows and four half-hour shows, which we shot in New York. And one of the things we did was, you know, I looked for a theater. I had very specific feelings about how it would work, and how it would work better than the comedy, standup comedy shows that were on the air at the time. At the time, you look at shows like from the Improv and there was always a brick wall, and a guy standing in front of a brick wall and you hear the laughter coming from the audience. In this case with DEF COMEDY JAM, the thing that turns one on is the interaction between the audience and the comedians, and it’s like a party. When we went to the thing, you know, the Comedy Act Theater is in L.A. The Uptown Comedy Club is in New York. The comics are, you know, pretty similar, but the thing that is absolutely the same is the excitement of the audience. It’s a party. It’s a party on and off stage. They come in the room to laugh, and they kinda start laughing before the show even starts. And that was what was exciting to us, is how the people reacted. And then we felt that that was an important thing to, you know, to bring forth on the show. So I lowered the stage or rather I got a stage, we found a stage at The Academy Theater in New York in Times Square. We had a stage that was only two feet off the ground. It was kind of a place where they did dances and stuff. It was two feet high. I got two risers to extend the stage into the audience and surrounded the comedians with the audience. It wasn’t all the way around, but it was like to the side of the stage. And we instructed the comedians, work on the edge of the stage, on the edge of the thrust. And then so that, you know, the effect on camera would look as if they were kinda surrounded by audience. But more importantly the excitement of the crowd, the energy of the crowd would be very apparent at all times, whenever we cut wide. So that when you cut to the Johnny Carson shot, which is what I call the kind of waist shot of a standup comedian, it’s fine. You know, there was no audience it was fine. But when you cut to a head to toe there were heads in the foreground. When you cut wide, there was a sea of people. And that was what I think really helped set DEF COMEDY JAM apart from anything else that had been actually done in standup comedy up to that point. We had a killer DJ whose job it was to get ‘em rocking before the show. So whenever we rolled tape on the show, the audience has already been partying, literally dancing, and then we calmed down. Martin Lawrence would come out and kill ‘em, and that really worked so well. And then the first four shows we had, you know, Martin Lawrence, Steve Harvey these were all people who were working for the first time. Martin had been around a little bit because he had been on that show WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW!! I think or one of those. But Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Chris Tucker, these guys had never been on television or maybe some local show in Cleveland or something. A number of ‘em: Ricky Harris, Jay Anthony Brown, Yvette Wilson, you know… lots of ‘em. [INT: Lots of 'em.]
INT: But I want to also talk about you started making a transition from just purely a Director, even though you probably were doing this a lot right from the beginning, into also producing.
SL: Yeah. Well I think that what happened was that position became more important to me when Russell [Russell Simmons] and I got together, 'cause I was the Hollywood connection so to speak, the TV connection. And as a result, you know, I became, you know, I became more involved in setting up the shows, setting up the businesses. So to finish off the DEF COMEDY JAM story, the four shows were amazing shows. They’re really all collector’s items now. They’ve all made a lot of money in the aftermarket. Chris [Chris Albrecht], like before we even, just from word of mouth about what was going on in New York from all the HBO Executives, immediately called and said, “Hey, I want eight more. I want 12. I want an episode load of 12.” So two months later, we were back. And then when they aired, immediately was this national hit, overwhelming hit. And you know, we ended up making 96 shows in that first run. And then we came back and did 20 more 10 years later. But the most, you know, remarkable fact was that we owned the show outright, and we licensed the show, I mean, they would give us a license fee to shoot it, and we would, you know, try to spend all, put all the money on the screen because the back end was all ours. And we, you know, we did pretty well in the VHS market. And then when the DVDs came and knocked VHSs out, the pot of gold, I shouldn’t use sayings like that, the potential for profit was even more because everybody that had VHSs turned around and got the DVDs.
INT: So, but then you went to DEF POETRY.
SL: So we did that [DEF COMEDY JAM], and then, you know, our relationship with HBO blossomed. We believe we put them in the late night business. They then went on to do a CHRIS ROCK SHOW, and to have, to do a lot more late night programming. TAXICAB CONFESSIONS, REAL SEX and stuff like that all kind of came along into that 11 o’clock Friday night slot that we kind of helped establish as a pretty good place for programming. And so not long after that we, Russell’s [Russell Simmons] brother, actually, brother Danny [Daniel Simmons, Jr.] he was involved, he’s an artist, and he’s involved in the poetry community. He said, “Hey, you know, this might be something here.” And we started going to poetry shows in Brooklyn and West Hollywood. And you know, low and behold, these young poets and they were very political. You know, they were great Writers. They were would-be rappers who wanted to do something a little more significant, who wanted to write about stuff that had more weight, more importance. And we kind of tapped into what was already a kind of underground marketplace of great Writers and spoken word artists. And used the same formula: low stage, a big audience, you know, audience involved. One of the things that we did with DEF COMEDY was the audiences were very urban, very rough. You could look at ‘em and say, “Man, I don’t wanna…” And we talked about it as the place that you could come safely at midnight, 11:30 or midnight on Friday night that you would never go to in real life, because it was just too, too scary. So that, you know, it had that kind of element of attraction. But at the DEF POETRY, because it was a much more sophisticated, even though still street, urban kind of hip-hop, you know. It was a little later in the game, so hip-hop was now flourishing, you know. We said this is the place that you wanna be, but you can’t get into because it’s so popular. And that kind of worked as a draw. And so we had the coolest audiences that were kind of hand-picked, and we would place people in the right spots so that it was very diverse and, you know, and pretty, and interesting, and that kind of thing. [INT: Get your shots. So I want to go back--] It’s all a part of the visual experience.
INT: I want to go back a little bit because you did a lot of half hour pilots. You were doing, you know, a bunch of shows. But I want to talk about ROC, because ROC was a unique experience. 'Cause you know, you were doing the show and then all the sudden one year you said, “We’re gonna do it live!”
SL: Yeah. [INT: That’s interesting.] ROC was a very unique experience. I, in fact, ROC was a show that I didn’t do; I didn’t do the pilot for ROC. I came in on the third episode. Stan Daniels did the pilot, and he, you know, he was very busy in the Mary Tyler Moore world or something. You know, he was a pretty sought after guy. And Roc, Charles Dutton, told the Producers and Fox: I want Stan Lathan. I didn’t know him, but he knew, you know, and so I met him and, you know, he said, “Hey, I want you to do the show. I know that you’re the guy. You worked with my wife Debbi [Debbie Morgan] on BEAT STREET. She was an extra on BEAT STREET, and she still talks about how amazing it was and all of that.” So I, you know, I got involved and it was great. It was a great show, and it was great because not only was the writing very good, but the entire Cast, the entire main Cast were Broadway Actors who had worked with August Wilson, who is a Broadway legend for writing these kind of uber realistic plays about black life and black, you know, black society and black in the 20th century. Characters that just jump off the stage, that live. And Roc had won a Tony Award, I think, for “Piano Lessons”. Was it “Piano Lessons”? And Rocky Carroll, and Carl Gordon and Ella Joyce were all people that had worked, you know, extensively with, actually Lloyd Richards directed a lot of those things, so they had pedigree, you know. They were real pros. And they came, they brought it to TV. And at first there was a concern that well, these guys are not real comedy Actors, you know, they’re Broadway stars. Broadway Actors are really serious Actors and they were. And for me, it was kind of an exhilarating experience to be able to work with pros like that. And you know, they learned how to, you know, they found the funny, you know. Carl Gordon, you know, was probably not ever trying to be funny, but because the character was written funny and because he was so stoic, and you know, kind of a caricature on his own right, it became, you know, a very effective character. Roc found the character, found the groove for the character Roc, and it was, you know, it was very effective.
INT: So talk about the live, because all of the sudden we’re hearing okay guys it’s [ROC] going to be live.
SL: Gonna be live. [INT: And not just…] Well, here’s what happened. In the second season Fox wanted to do a stunt. They wanted us to do one show live, and it got better ratings, you know, so they were all up for it. But Fox’s idea was they’re gonna mess up. We’re gonna promote this as a live show, and they’ll be, you know, whatever the mistakes are it will all be out there for people to see. And of course they nailed it. They nailed it so well that it then became well maybe we ought to do this show live anyway. We’ll save a lot of post, we’ll get it over with, get it done, you know, we just had to go in and clean it up a little bit. We never used a laugh track on it. You know, there were a lot of reasons to do it live, and we were game.
INT: So talk to me about the experience from a Directors point of view, doing it [ROC] live as opposed to do it on tape.
SL: Well, you just have to kind of stay on top of it. [INT: I know, I know.] I had a world-class Stage Manager. In fact David Wader did the pilot--did the first live, and then Merv Hawkins was the Stage Manager for the rest of the run. Two world-class AD’s [Assistant Directors], Debbie Pasetta who’s now Debbie Palacio and Laura Lyons were two AD’s who kind of both worked on the show over the period of time. They were both so great, so precise at setting shots, calling shots--I mean, you know, readying shots, that all I had to do, period, was snap my finger at the right time. And that was… And of course, you know, stage it, but when it came to shooting it live there was no problem. Count us into commercials, get us off the air on, you know, on time. We shot 22 episodes that season, and we had very few problems.
INT: Did you ever go back for whatever the DVD or whatever the aftermarket, did you every go back to clean anything up [referring to live performances of ROC]?
SL: No. You know, a couple of times because we shot it in L.A., at 5 o’clock, because it would go live in the air in the East Coast, we would go back and do a little pick up, a little fix between the 5, and the time that the show aired at 8pm. [INT: 'Cause here it would be taped.] Yeah, here it would be taped, so we could go fix something, but it wasn’t often. There was a couple times that Actors would go up on their lines, and our Actors would just save them by, you know, saying the line or… I remember once Roc, this newer kid was off, was up, and he opened the door and said, “Get out of my house!” or something like that. And then turned around and said, “You know what he was trying to say.” [INT: So and no laugh track?] No laugh track, real laughter. [INT: No guy in there with those…] No, real laughter. [INT: It was real laughter.]
INT: So let’s come up to modern day, you know, current time, which is, you know, the new reality of Hollywood, you know, HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS. This is something kind of new and different and…
SL: Yeah, it’s called THE REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD. A lot of people refer to it as HOLLYWOOD HUSBANDS. It got started because on BET there’s the BET Awards. BET Awards is like the biggest show, and Kevin Hart was hosting one year, a few years ago. And usually they shoot some sort of skits and sketches with the host that they run at various parts of the show. And so they decided, I think Chris Spencer was involved, Kevin, a couple of other Writers, they decided that they were gonna do a takeoff on THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF ATLANTA, but they were gonna do guys. So they did like three, two minute sketches with these guys playing poker and, you know, and it was pretty funny stuff. And you know, it aired on the show and it went viral afterwards. And then somebody started this campaign of this should be a show; this should be a show. And it had Kevin, and Anthony Anderson, and Nick Cannon and Jermaine Dupri I think was on it initially… those folks and maybe a couple more. So eventually Stephen Hill had the foresight to get it picked up as a pilot. But actually what we did was get a pickup for 12 shows. The first one would be the pilot. And we put together the cast. And because it was supposed to be a reality show, we had to shoot it single camera. We had multi-cameras shooting of course. And we kind of used as many reality show techniques as possible. We tried to make it look like a reality show. And it was a lot of ad-lib, a lot of improv in that. And we’re now talking about shooting the fifth season. [INT: Great, congratulations.]
INT: I mean being a Producer, you’re directing a lot of it, but when you hire Directors what do you look for in a Director?
SL: I kind of look for experience, depending on… I kind of look for experience, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be the exact same experience of that, you know, for instance if we were choosing a Director for REAL HUSBANDS [THE REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD], I would probably look for a Director who I felt had the, you know, the ability to be loose, you know, to not be as precise. To get it in, and getting it in means getting it in in, you know, in the 10, in the 12 hours that we have in our short schedule, but who has, you know, that kind of experience. If I felt like I was in a position where I couldn’t hire--or a Director who is ready to make that move and it’s obvious that he’s got the skills, you know? I think at some point we have to give people, you know, a shot, and we need to, you know, take somewhat of a leap, but you still gotta deliver, so.
INT: I mean let’s talk, you know, back in the day you talk about there was no integration because there was nobody there in the room. It was you were in the room, you know, like it wasn’t about segregation. It wasn’t about, you know, there was just nobody there. Now we’re beginning to have more, you know, people behind the camera. You’re not at NBC with only the people in the kitchen, you know, waiting. [SL: Exactly.] You know, how’s it feel different? Do you feel that, you know, we’re making advancements? Well obviously we’re making advancements, you know, are we making fast enough? Is there things that, you know, you would say to, you know, young kids coming up in terms of, you know, getting ready, being there, being prepared?
SL: I would say that, you know, and I’ve said this to young Directors, that it’s important to really establish some sort of body of work. And nowadays it’s a lot easier than it was when I was coming up. And that is because of the, you know, the Internet and of course, of the, you know, the equipment that now is, you know, pretty available for folks to make small films. I know a number of young folks that were making their own films, and the more I see the more I see how, you know, how the level of skill, you know, is rising. So, but I do believe that if, you know, kinda hanging out in Hollywood trying to, you know, trying to steal a job is--and I say steal, I mean, it’s like sneak up on one and, you know--it’s tough. [INT: Hope that it hits you in the face?] Yeah, it’s tough, you know, that there are probably now a lot more outlets like the Internet and so forth where you can at least, you know, ply your trade and get it seen. Meanwhile, the prep that one does as a Writer, or as a, you know, researcher or whoever on any other job on a film set is something that, you know, should be taken advantage of. I just did a TV show last week, actually, in Atlanta. I shot several episodes of a BET show in Atlanta. We shot on location on a stage. And I gotta say, half of the Crew was African American. And I gotta say that at least seven, eight, nine people had their own films that they had made or were making, and they were, you know, working: One of them was a Camera Assistant, you know, they were working in the office. It was like, it’s a very popular now to be, you know, making your own film. And I think that that’s a pretty encouraging thing 'cause it’s only gonna make the level and the quality of the stuff that’s out there, you know, rise. Russell [Russell Simmons], who’s still a partner on a number of shows, has a website called ADD [All Def Digital]. There’s a room full of people there. It’s not just African Americans; it’s very diverse. And they’re all, you know, just chugging away, every day, shooting sketches, shooting news pieces, you know, going around shooting, you know, various kinds of material. I wouldn’t even say… they’re not little movies or anything, but it’s just, you know, they need material to fill up that void on the Internet. And some of them are really talented. And the more they work, the more they do, the more they shoot, the better they get.
INT: You’ve had mentors. And you are now in the position of mentoring yourself. Do you find that you are mentoring people, that you’re open that you’re…?
SL: I think I am. I definitely, you know, feel like there are several people who I’ve, you know, I kinda take a strong interest in, and you know, actually exchange thoughts and advice with and so forth.
INT: I’m gonna ask you a personal question that’s, you know… this is something that I’m always battling with myself, is you’ve got a great family. You’ve got a fabulous family. I always tell the story about when I hired Sanaa [Sanna Lathan] in Connecticut, and we were getting on the train an she got you on the phone and she said, “Oz, tell him how I did, tell him how I did.” You know, they look up to you. They, you know, they want your, you know… Balancing your professional life and your personal life, you know, how do you feel about that? You know what I mean, does it…?
SL: You know, good question because my professional life has been pretty intense. And you know, it hasn’t been a lot of time over the last 30 years that I haven’t been working. And many of those times I’ve been traveling and so forth. You know, I really do treasure my wife and my kids. And they really do give me inspiration and a sense of purpose. And I think they realize that, that they provide that for me. So we spend quality time together when we’re together. I try to be, you know, present when I’m in town and when I’m home. And we do things together. You know, we don’t do a lot of traveling together, but we certainly have probably watched more movies together than any family in the world. And we’re all movie buffs, and we all have, you know, our own likes and dislikes. But we kinda hang out a lot. [INT: Do they come and visit?] All the time. My house is--[INT: Wherever you are?] My house is central. [INT: No, I’m saying where ever you are.] Oh. No, my wife comes always to, you know, to a set where I am, usually. But I’m not trying to, you know, trek the family cross-country or where ever, you know. I don’t try to do that. [INT: Okay. But it’s something that I know that’s always on my mind, am I giving them enough time? Am I… You know, because we are busy. We are running.] Well probably, you know, I probably feel guilty about that sometime, but, you know, I think that it’s interesting because Sanaa and Tendaji [Tendaji Lathan], my two older kids who are now, you know, adults by far, probably saw a lot less of me than my present kids or I said my present, but my younger kids. And I often think about that. But they don’t, they don’t seem to be holding a grudge for the fact that I wasn’t around as much then for them as I am now for the kids that are still in the house. Because I think, you know, I just stopped traveling a lot more. We’re just working a lot more in L.A., so going away has not been as much of a thing for me.
INT: So we’ve talked about a lot of stuff. You know, if you could pick three moments out of your career of shows, or things or moments what would those three, you know, one, two, three be? I mean you talked about HILL STREET [HILL STREET BLUES]. You talked about, you know, working with James Baldwin [AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE: GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN]. Is there anything else that stands out to you?
SL: You know, I thought about that question 'cause it was one of the questions that I saw. It didn’t say three moments, it said, you know… [INT: I said three.] Yeah, your best, and I can’t really name one. And actually, I sat down, I wrote down a list of my favorites, and the list ended up being like 12 things, you know, so. And it ranged from SAVE THE CHILDREN to MOESHA, you know, from GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN to REAL HUSBANDS OF HOLLYWOOD. You know, it’s just such a range. I think the thing that I’m the most grateful for is that I’ve had experience in all of these areas, and I’ve had access to, you know, some of the best people in the world to work with on both sides of the camera. I’ve been able to work on, you know, on a lot of TV, but within that there’s been, you know, a great treasure chest of good stuff. Stuff that people come to me now and say hey that film changed something about me, or I learned something from that film, and it’s a film I made 20 years ago. You know, and they’ll mention a scene that I don’t even remember that was in that film. And I have young cast tell me, “Hey my father worked with you. He was a prop man. He said you were the best,” and that was, you know, 20 years ago. Or I’ll have a Director say to me, “It was because of you that I’m doing what I’m doing now, because I was inspired by you.” So I don’t know, I just feel like really lucky to have been where I’ve been, to have done what I’ve done and to have what I think is still, you know, a lot more to accomplish, and feel like I’m just starting to learn how to do it.
INT: Any regrets? I mean I know that’s very broad, but is there anything that you bumped on…?
SL: I regret---there was a little period of time in the '80s [1980s] where I kinda lost steps based on my overindulgence in Hollywood excesses. And I felt like at that point I lost a little touch with my goal, my vision, and it gives a little bit of a setback. And it even had an effect on my relationships with, you know, close friends and family and so forth. And it was a typical Hollywood story that had a happy ending at least because whatever the demons were we eventually overcome, you know, and they’ve continued to be overcome 30 years later. So, if I have any regrets, I feel like that was. I was in the prime of my career at that point that it might have caused a little misstep. But had it not happened, what would it mean to me now? I don’t, you know, probably not much because I couldn’t ask for more. [INT: What got you out of it?] My family, you know, realizing that I was on the wrong track and that I was doing harm or at least not helping, you know, my kids, my family, you know, to really flourish, you know, emotionally and physically and all of that. Now, it wasn't as bad, except that I wasn’t, it’s not like I was doing damage. It’s just that I wasn’t continuing to do, you know, the right thing and to help develop them even more better, but we’ve all turned out to be really great. [INT: What got you into it?] Hollywood. Hollywood. It was, you know, caught up in the flash of the '70s [1970s]. I mean, yeah, you know, the '70s in Hollywood. You know, it’s '70s, early '80s, it was like… And I did a lot of stuff during that time. I was operating, you know, on just, on another kind of energy level, but I was, it's just that I feel like, you know, and maybe, you know, whatever I went through, you know, made me stronger as I came out of it. And that, you know, maybe I wouldn’t be here now with so much on my plate, you know, had I not built up some sort of a strength from, you know, having to overcome, you know, obstacles and shit.
INT: So bucket list, what do you want to do? Where do you want to go? Is there something else, you know, you’ve tackled a lot of genres, you’ve tackled a lot of, you know, is there any thoughts of something that’s interesting to you or are you just--or does it sound like you stay open?
SL: Yeah, I just stay open. I do want to continue to work in comedy period. I love it. You know, I feel like I have a natural affinity and gift for just being able to have fun and to find the funny in any given situation. I’m more aware of that every time I step out there and work on a comedy project, be it standup or be it, you know, situation comedy or what have you. But I don’t know this, I’m not, you know, feigning to do anything particular. I just want to keep, you know, keep developing projects and doing them. And I feel like the best is yet to come, still.
INT: This is a good place to end, but I want to ask one more. What would you say to a young Director, I mean first of all I’d say watch this whole interview because there’s a lot you said, but if you could, you know, put it into a, you know, a short sentence or a short few sentences, you know, what would you say to young Directors coming up right now?
SL: I told you I said, I told you before, 'cause I talk to a lot of young Directors, and I get this question all the time. And I do feel like, you know, you have to find your groove, find what it is that you really, you know, kind of, you know, establish what it is you really want to achieve and then to try to figure out the steps that take you into a position where you can create something. If you’re a Director, you can create something that helps you develop your craft and show what you can do. Now that’s a kind of a general statement, but I don’t know how much more specific I can be, you know. It’s just look and see what’s out there. Right now there’s a lot of opportunities to find things, not so much to get hired on or to work on, but things that, you know, you can spend your energy trying to figure out and trying to find a path. And there are a lot more opportunities than there ever have been. And then shoot your best shot. I say that to my kids about school. I say, “Hey, you don’t get a whole lot of shots. So each one of ‘em is very important. And if you can get past whatever it is that’s happening over here that distracts you, and you know, just for the time it takes concentrate on what the target, you know, and go for it, that’s… if you can develop that, then probably you can be successful, so. [INT: Right.]
INT: So I’m gonna ask the question about UNCLE TOM’S CABIN. You turned it down?
SL: Yeah, you know, my Agent came to me and said, “Hey, Ed Scherick wants you to direct this, one of his movies,” and you know, Ed Scherick was a pretty prolific Producer of Hollywood, of television movies. “And he’s got a movie for Showtime, and it’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.” I said, “No, please. I’m not even interested. Don’t want to meet.” So Ed Scherick was like a pit bull, and he came after me. He decided that he wanted me to do this show. He had looked at all my credits, he had this movie and he had a green light on it. And he said, “I want you to read the script.” I said, “I don’t--Uncle Tom’s Cabin, do you understand what you’re asking me-Uncle Tom, you know what that stands for?” I said, “You know what that character stands for? He’s a caricature.” He said, “Just, just check it out.” And so I went and I had lunch with him. And he said, “Listen, I’m gonna let you do anything with this movie you want, but I want to get it made and I want to get it made by somebody who is a conscious filmmaker. And I gotta tell you, you know, we got money, we’re gonna put together a cast.” And I met the Writer, I don’t remember the Writer’s name, but anyway I met and we talked about the character. We talked about the fact that Uncle Tom, if he looked within, he was really, you know, a very strong figure for other slaves and so forth. And we kind of started to figure out that this could be a very positive character if properly cast, and if properly developed. So I got Avery Brooks to play Uncle Tom. Avery Brooks was A MAN CALLED HAWK. I got Samuel L. Jackson to play the slave who was--there was a side story. I forget the character’s name. And Phylicia Ayers, Phylicia Allen, Phylicia--[INT: Rashad] She was all of this, right, but Phylicia Rashad. [INT: Phylicia.] Phylicia, yeah of course Phylicia. So anyway I got her, and I got, you know, really put together a good cast. Edward Woodward was a British Actor who played the Enforcer on TV. I think it was THE ENFORCER [THE EQUALIZER]. [INT: Oh yeah, yes, yes, and he was in that Australian movie too.] Yeah, brilliant. Yeah, he was. Brilliant Actor, played Simon Legree the villain. And we put together a film that was amazing, and that Avery Brooks, his portrayal of Uncle Tom was memorable. He played him as a strong slave who sacrificed for the good of the rest of the troop, the slaves. And, you know, I ended up being very proud of that movie. That movie also did some festival and was fairly successful on the festival circuit. And it aired on Showtime, and it’s one of my good, one of my fun movies--it wasn’t fun. We shot it in Natchez, Mississippi. It was in August. It was hell. [INT: Been there.] So we all went through what the slaves went through, sweating under the hot summer sun.
INT: White House.
SL: The White House. So HBO, Chris Spencer, not the same Chris Spencer who’s a comedy Writer here, got invited by the White House to put together an evening of poetry, and they called me because I was the poetry guy. I'd, you know, I'd just finished doing a show, a series called BRAVE NEW VOICES [RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS BRAVE NEW VOICES] about the Youth Poetry Movement [Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement]. And so, you know, he asked me to come in and stage the show. So we put together a show that had Lin Manuel-Miranda, who was the Writer of the Broadway play "In The Heights" and now "Alexander Hamilton" [HAMILTON], brilliant Writer and Performer. We got James Earl Jones who was sort of the emcee but who also read, you know, from "Othello" [THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE]. And Esperanza Spalding performed and several of the best of the BRAVE NEW VOICES poets. In the East Room of the White House put together a really, you know, amazing group of spectators, kind of the Washington, D.C., African American, you know, folks. It was very diverse, and you know, the President [Barack Obama] and his wife [Michelle Obama] were there, and they both spoke. And we performed, and it was pretty exciting. [INT: Were you able to combine the audience and the poet?] Pardon me? [INT: Were you able to combine the audience and the poet or you weren’t able to get that…?] No this was in the White House. This was staged. This was a small room. There were a lot of people in it, but it was a very inspirational evening that certainly is unforgettable. In fact, it can be found on the Washington, on the White House website under all the different shows. You can actually pull it up and watch the entire show to this day. And that was about three years--four years ago.
INT: So let me ask you about the Directors Guild of America, the DGA, you know, you joined in ’72 .
SL: No, ’70 . [INT: In ’70?] It might have been ’69 , actually, because I had to be in the Directors Guild before I could work on BLACK JOURNAL, before I could go into the studio of BLACK JOURNAL. And I’m thinking, in fact, we even, somebody showed me my application. I think it was ’69, might have been ’70, but...
INT: The question, you know, I mean how’s the DGA changed? Has it been useful for you? And I say that because at one point you--didn’t you retire from the DGA or so…?
SL: Well, yeah. I don’t know. I retired because I was… [INT: Producing more and not…] Yes, I was producing more. I don’t know, I think it was a move that was kind of suggested by my business manager at some point, one of those things, you know, but--[INT: There’s a lot of, you know, and I’m gonna be real honest, there’s a lot of stuff that is going non-union, and there’s a lot of--] Yeah, no, I never actually was much into non-union stuff. I’ve been very active as a Guild member. [INT: No, you are.] And you know, I enjoyed being a member. I enjoyed going to, you know, occasional events. I enjoyed being honored by the DGA, now being recorded by the DGA. [INT: How did… but there was not a lot of black Directors--] No there were very-- [INT: --back then.] I don’t remember who there were. There might have been Roy Allen. You know Karen Allen? Roy Allen’s daughter? Roy Allen was a Director at one of the local stations in New York. I think he might have been in the Guild. No, they weren’t--[INT: So you’re DGA East in the beginning?] Kent Garrett was the one that signed my application. He was a Director; he’s black. And there were a few. The Guild was different then, and I was in the New York branch at the time. I remember, you know, like a dues statement never came. It was like a couple of years went by, and so I said to somebody I knew I said, “You know, what’s going on?” He said, “Ah, it’s a mess. You know they’re like behind. They got stacks of stuff.” So I said, “Wow!” And then like a year later, a couple of years later computers came into the game and ever since then, it’s been cool.
INT: Has Creative Rights, residuals, production incentives, internet theft and, you know, a lot of these things the DGA is working on, you know, being a Producer and a Director, do they, have you had much, you know, I mean you’ve had benefits from a lot of these…?
SL: Yeah, I find that all the shows that I’ve done, from even DEF COMEDY JAM and all of those, have been Guild shows. And as a Producer, it was never a problem because I know the rules, you know, and I have a vested interest in following the rules. And in fact they’re very helpful. You know, I think the Directors Guild is one Guild that you don’t mind dealing with, unless you’re trying to get away with something, unless you’re trying to make a movie for less money than it should be made for and you feel like you’re gonna save some money. Well, you know, my feeling is that, you know, if you can get the best people, you end up saving money anyway, at the end of the day, whatever you, you know, so I’ve never had a problem. And I’ve been asked on several occasions to get involved with non-union projects, and it’s not even close.
INT: I’m gonna ask you one last, one person you talked about at the Steering Committee [African American Steering Committee] honors [A Celebration of African American TV Directors] we touched on here. But you talked about Clarence Avant, and I just want to talk about Clarence for a minute, 'cause SAVE THE CHILDREN, he was very important to you. And you said that he was also very important to you throughout your career, you stayed in touch with him, you know. I mean how, you know, could you talk--
SL: To this day. Matt Robinson introduced me to Clarence Avant. It was around 19--it was when I first got to New York, ’69 . Clarence was an L.A. person, but he was also kind of an entrepreneur in his own way. He had a record company he called Tabu Records, and they had acts like Bill Withers and Zelayma and couple of others, but he had his fingers in a lot of pots. And I got together with him, and we talked about being, you know, being an African American--we didn’t use that term then--being black and being in the business. And he kind of inspired me because he was so successful even then. And because he had this uncompromising attitude about how he lives his life and how he, you know, conducted his business. And he wasn’t apologetic or at all felt any kind of disadvantage because he was black, because he was so strong willed and focused on what he needed to, you know, to do to get ahead. And so I kinda used him as a template. You know, whenever I’m in a situation where, you know, I start to question whether I’m doing the right thing or whether I’m even supposed to be in this because, you know, those feelings of being less than can somehow be foisted upon you, you know? And you gotta fight those feelings because they’re kind of ingrained in our consciousness from 400 years of slavery, and whatever happened in the 100 years since. And so he’s been, for me, he’s a rock, and he’s been, you know, a great role model. He’s also produced a couple of things that I did. Not only did he produce SAVE THE CHILDREN, he produced a Muhammad Ali special that I directed for ABC in the 70s [1970s]. He got me… You know, he certainly, you know, put my name out there and got me, you know, considered for things that came along. He arranged for me to meet a few people in Hollywood who helped give me some guidance and some advice. And, you know, I’ve even come to him with questions and conversation about, you know, my life in general. And he was probably, you know, a very positive force, you know, when things were not, you know, going the way I thought they should. So to this day, he’s been, he’s a strong, steadfast friend with substantive relationship, yeah, very much so.
INT: I’ve heard a lot about what you like about directing, you know, your enthusiasm for directing. Is there anything that you don’t like about directing?
SL: I can’t think of anything I don’t like. I know it gets tedious sometimes. Sometimes I find myself wondering, you know, how I’m gonna get out of this mess, you know. And feeling like oh no, you know, this is gonna be a disaster. And I just, you know, keep plowing forward. And there are some shows that are better than others, and there are some instances where I feel more heroic and triumphant than others. But at the end of the day, the game is exciting and the game is exhilarating and I’m happy to be playing it. [INT: Right.]