'Boyz n the Hood' Director John Singleton on Bringing the Real South Central to FX's 'Snowfall'

john singleton interview
Paul Archuleta/Film Magic/Getty Images

In more ways than one, John Singleton's career started in South Central Los Angeles -- the streets, the culture, and the turmoil of the late 20th century. Like the great hip-hop acts of the time, he took what he saw in his neighborhood and spun it into essential, lasting art -- namely, the iconic film Boyz n the Hood. He's dipped in and out of the fantastical blockbuster cinema world with movies like the Shaft remake and 2 Fast 2 Furious, but his latest project, the FX series Snowfall, marks a return to the LA in which he grew up.

The series, starring English actor Damson Idris as a 19-year-old South Central drug dealer named Franklin, dramatizes the complex, devastating rise of crack cocaine in America -- an event that would forever change the city Singleton calls home. The series is highly personal for Singleton and, in a recent chat, he discusses how much he shares with the character of Franklin, the evolution of Los Angeles since the '80s, and why South Park is the best medicine for today's cultural turbulence.

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Thrillist: You nailed the Los Angeles dialect, the way that people talk in South Central. You're from there, but how did you get your actors to hit that and to make it feel authentic to not only the location, but the time period?

John Singleton: It's what I call an LA twang. A lot of those people who lived in those times immigrated from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi. The kids had a little twang to their voices, a kind of cadence to their voices. So, we had them listen to different hip-hop artists, the way they talk. Not totally Southern, but not totally clear at all.

That's the thing most people don't know about Los Angeles. People speak differently in different parts of the city or the county.

Singleton: Depending on where their people are from.

Exactly. You also capture the period really well. What was it about 1983 specifically that you wanted to hit on with the rise of the crack epidemic in America?

Singleton: I really wanted to see the transition from what we saw in my first movie, Boyz n the Hood, to how it got that way. That's what I'm concentrating on. When kids could play in the streets. There were no bars on the homes. People didn't really gate in their homes at the time. Really going from that sense of the neighborhood being kind of open-ended. The lady across the street could tell your mother, "Your boy was doing bad," and she wouldn't have any fear.

All these families were transported from the South, so it was like a village. Watts had different villages, but that all changed with crack cocaine. We had gangs, even at that time, but when crack cocaine came, it exacerbated gang culture, because people were in business. They had to fight over territory for business purposes. It was like, "Don't come over here, because you're messing with my money." You're not gonna take my market share over here.

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The character of Franklin seems like the character you would identify with the most as you writing, executive producing, and running this show. Is there anything of you in there at all?

Singleton: What do you think?

A little bit, yeah. I would assume.

Singleton: Of course. It's a very personal project for me.

Are there any specific personality traits or moments in the character or in the plot of the first season that you can say was close to something you experienced?

Singleton: The biggest thing is the whole thing of Franklin's arc. I only had the opportunity to go to school in the [San Fernando] Valley one year. Anyone from the hood understands you don't want to be in that environment. You wanna get on the bus and go to Torrence or to the Valley. That's why I always laugh when the rappers say "Yeah, I'm from here," but they worked so hard so they could get out to somewhere else. Going to school somewhere else is the closest thing you can do, but that's not your experience or your life. You're there for part of the day, half the day. At the same time, you kind of have an alienation, because that's not really your environment. That whole duality of being in one environment to the next and having that alienation is something I really put into the character.

Let's talk about LA today and where we are in terms of uplifting minority communities now. We look back on the crack epidemic and say, "Wow, that was really terrible, that was a long time ago." Do you think it's better now, do you think it's the same, or do you think it's worse?

Singleton: I don't think it's the same. I think it's less violent. I think a lot of people were displaced after that. A lot of people were displaced by economic forces within the last 20 years. Also, some people went to prison. So much has changed in the last 20 years. That community is not necessarily a black community anymore. There are people who live in the area who've been living in their homes for maybe 40 or 50 years, but it really has changed in the last 20 years as well.

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It feels even in the last five to 10 years, it's changed significantly. As someone who's a native of Los Angeles and has been here and knows it as well as anybody, what are the things about it -- restaurants, museums, bars, parks -- that you loved as a kid that are not there anymore? Or locations that are still there that you'd want to elevate and promote so that people can experience it?

Singleton: That far back?

As far as you want to go, anything you want to highlight.

Singleton: Check out La Louisanne. It's a bar and restaurant and social club that's on Slauson. It still has a great jazz night and people from the neighborhood come there and drink and stuff. Go to Leimert Park, which has great galleries and jazz clubs; the awesome Eso Won Bookstore where I hold court sometimes. St. Elmo Village, which is on St. Elmo Street. It's a village that was formed in the early 70s by a black art collective. The streets are painted by the neighborhood. It's an artistic village. That village is responsible for me being an artist, because as a child, I used to take art classes there. Some places have really been changed by time and torn down.

What got you into wanting to do a TV show?

Singleton: Feature-wise, it's very difficult to do dramatic work, serious dramatic work and stuff that is interesting and groundbreaking and doing something different. Plus, you can do a movie a week on television. In film, you're lucky if you get a film made every two or three years.

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How do you see television as a medium evolving? Ratings are not important to a lot of outlets now. Streaming has made the art more important than the commerce, in some ways. Do you think these sorts of advertising-centric networks are going to not worry so much about metrics and things like that?

Singleton: I think it depends. If you're ad-based, there will always be a sense of ratings and how far you can sell these stories. The good thing is there is a huge bandwidth for different places to get something made. It makes it more competitive for various stories on various platforms.

What are things that you're watching yourself on TV right now?

Singleton: I'm not watching anything much right now. I'm so busy. Honestly speaking, the only thing I've been watching on television lately is CNN. When I get too tired of that and feel my head is going to explode, then I take a drink and my drink is South Park. South Park just clears my head of all the bullshit that's on CNN. Honestly, I watch CNN, I get a headache and get mad, and then I watch South Park. I say, "Oh, well, shit." I just laugh at everything.

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Dave Schilling is a writer-at-large for Bleacher Report. He has also written for Grantland, The Guardian US, and Vice. Follow him on Twitter @dave_schilling.