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Bun B on the Houston Cinema Arts Society, Criterion Laserdiscs and Squid Game

Bun B, replicating Gene Kelly’s classic Singin’ in the Rain pose, in 2017 (courtesy of the Houston Cinema Arts Society)

In May of 2015, legendary rapper and Texan Bun B joined the board of directors of the Houston Cinema Arts Society—first conceived in 2007, with the first edition of its annual film festival held in 2009. This Friday sees the start of the 13th Houston Cinema Arts Festival, including centerpiece and closing night screenings of Bushwick Bill: Geto Boy, a documentary that allows the late artist to tell his story in his own words. Bun B will be moderating the latter Q&A, which is far from the first time he’s gotten out and pushed for the organization. My job, by definition, does not include interviewing hip-hop legends, but as a fan and fellow Texan by birth, an invite to talk to Bun B about his work with the Society was too good to pass up.

Filmmaker: Growing up, what kind of movies were you drawn to? Was there a moment where you were like, “Movies might be slightly more interesting me to my peers”?

B: My parents divorced when I was young, so I ended up spending a lot of time alone while my mom was working. TV was a refuge, so typical stuff that would come on cable would intrigue me. But the turning point was probably, of all films, The Goonies. Not only the movie and story and everything, but I really wanted to know, how did they do that? How did they make a pirate ship and all these different puzzles and traps and everything that they had to overcome? I was intrigued by the process. Then, in high school, probably my junior year, somehow I found 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then I was like, “OK, now I have no idea how people make movies.” So, not only did I continue to watch a lot of films, but I started to look at documentaries and different things.

Then I found the Criterion Collection, and they have all these different commentaries by directors and cinematographers. Now I’m really drawn into the process of how movies are written, and how scenes are worked out between directors and actors, and all these different facets and how nuanced it is to actually create a film. While I’m learning all about these huge productions and how people were able to create this big stuff, all this little stuff starts to happen in Texas. Here comes Slacker, right? All of this different cinema starts to open itself up to me and I found myself in the midst of a new love.

Filmmaker: Were you on Criterion in the laserdisc era? You’re an early adopter?

B: Yes. My partner [Pimp C] was a big laserdisc fan. I had no idea that laserdiscs existed, and he actually turned me on to the technology. The benefit of laserdisc was the fact that it had all this extra content, and I was always trying to find more BTS stuff and things like that. When commentary came along, that was different, because now people are actually walking you through what the thought process is, what they’re actually doing in the moment and how they’re coming up with certain scenes. It makes everything so much more immersive, and I’m realizing I’m getting more out of the experience than the average person who just goes to the movies.

Filmmaker: Do you remember any commentary track in particular that you were like, “Oh wow, this really opens everything up for me?”

B: I know I got weirded out by The Seventh Seal. That was one of the ones that I was like, “I don’t know if I can listen to this and watch this movie.” But the movie itself is very off-putting, so that one was one that I was like, “Maybe I don’t want to know everything about how this happened.” But, anything in particular? Might have been The Killer. Because The Killer had a big impact on hip hop culture, with Wu-Tang and everything like that.

Filmmaker: Were you also into all those Shaw brothers movies from the 70s, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and all that?

B: I mean, we would go and see them. My brothers would take us to the movies on the weekend, because we used to be next to the skating rink and they used to do dollar movies on Saturdays, typically either Blaxploitation or kung fu films. Late night and on Saturday mornings on our local television here, they would always play kung fu stuff. I wouldn’t say I was the biggest fan of it, but I used to enjoy it for sure.

Filmmaker: I was doing a little homework before this call. My memory is kind of the same as what you were saying, that film in Texas didn’t really take off until the ’90s. But one thing I found says that things really started blowing up in the early ’70s.

B: Really? Closer to, like, Giant? Is that what they’re saying?

Filmmaker; They’re saying Last Picture Show is a big one, for example.

B: Right, Bogdanovich. I get that, OK.

Filmmaker: And more TV productions started shooting then. But for you growing up, did you ever think, “I live in Texas, so I can probably get involved in film production”? Because I don’t feel like that would’ve felt super perceptible to you at the time.

B: Well, I didn’t have aspirations to be in film at that age. I can’t say that was something I would’ve pondered. Even something like Dallas when the TV show was on: I’d never been to Dallas, so I wasn’t sure if that was exactly how Dallas was, you know? But you felt like maybe somewhere in Texas there was a family like that, so things like that hit us a little different based on proximity, because those characters didn’t seem so outrageous to me. What they were doing was crazy, but just the idea of there being John Ross Ewing in Dallas, whose family has always had a bunch of money and he’s doing a bunch of crazy shit to try to keep the family money together—that doesn’t seem so far-fetched for a Texan. But no, I didn’t have any aspirations. I assumed all movies were made in Hollywood, you know? I remember when Robocop 2 was being filmed in Houston, I was like, “Wow. They make movies in other cities?”

Filmmaker: I want to ask about your relationship to movies from when UGK started getting used on soundtracks. I don’t know if your IMDb is by any means complete, that’s kind of impossible to verify. But it looks like the first time your music was in a movie was in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. What was that experience like for you?

B: Well, some of them were just submissions. Our first actual soundtrack was when we were featured on Menace. Our record label, Jive, had been commissioned to provide a soundtrack. Typically before, most movie soundtracks were one artist. This is one of the first times where they had a soundtrack put together that was basically a compilation album of all these different artists. We were asked to submit something. We submitted it, they rejected it, so we submitted something else and that ended up being a better choice in hindsight.

I have had really interesting situations. For example, we were commissioned to record something for the movie The Corruptor, which is directed by James Foley. So, I was actually able to go and sit with him, and look at dailies and exactly where he wanted the songs to be inserted, and him giving me a lot of backstory. I actually submitted a TV script to him, just something to show I was looking to be a writer—basically a little spec script. He looked at it, he gave me a lot of notes and advice on it. But I never had had any opportunity to have that kind of proximity with someone in the midst of creating a film and creating music for a film But James Foley was a very accomplished director. Corruptor was a different type of film for him, so he was very open to taking notes and cues culturally for it. It was an amazing experience.

Filmmaker: Some years ago I interviewed Stuart Murdoch, who’s in Belle and Sebastian, and he said that as a person who’s in a band, he hates the way pretty much all songs are used in movies because he always feels like cutting something off after 30 seconds is disrespectful to the song itself. Do you ever feel like there’s been a movie or a TV show that showcased a song of yours in a way that you’re really happy with?

B: If you look at Don’t Be a Menace, my song actually opens up the movie. It starts from the absolute beginning and plays almost the entirety through the opening credits and sets the tone for the movie. I remember going to the premiere, knowing I was on the soundtrack but not knowing whether or not we were in the movie. Then the movie comes on and the first thing you hear is the opening notes to my song, and I’m realizing that in 30 seconds my voice is about to appear on this screen in this theater full of people. It was amazing. It starts happening and everybody’s looking at me like, “Oh wow.” And I’m trying to be cool about it, like I knew, but I had no idea.

Filmmaker: How did you get involved with the Society? Did they come to you and say, “We’d like to have you involved in any capacity?” Or, “We want you to sit on the board?”

B: I was approached and offered a board position. The Society had a very broad vision for what they wanted to represent in terms of culture in Houston, and they thought I could help them in terms of making it something open to more people in the city. Typically, film festivals are directed at cinephiles, people who are very serious about film, and they wanted to open the festival up to people who just love films in general. You didn’t have to be super knowledgeable, you didn’t have to have a link on your page to IMDb or anything like that, just people that really enjoy the experience and being able to go into a movie theater and escape for a few hours. And I was all about that. We had a really good conversation about where they thought I could help them, and it actually worked out great. Obviously, I have a very broad platform that reaches a lot of people. I’m more than happy to use it to bring people to the table. I just want people to be a part of everything.

Filmmaker: I watched a bit of your conversation with Richard Linklater, who founded the Austin Film Society, for the 25th anniversary of Dazed and Confused. Y’all have been lately collaborating and advocating on behalf of trying to keep the River Oaks Theater open. What’s that relationship to you like in terms of just trying to build links for the promotion of film viewing in Texas?

B: I think we feel the same way. The River Oaks Theater is something that—anyone that really loves film, that was always the place you wanted to go and see a film. [There’s] so many memories and so much history and culture tied into the building. It seemed like such a shame for it to be given away for commercial use; Richard felt the same way. Richard understands the history, obviously, and it’s good to have likeminded individuals, who have their various sets of resources, come together and use those resources for the common good. In this instance, we’re still trying. It’s not an easy thing. We’re getting some traction, but it’s still a work in progress. Hopefully everybody does the right thing.

Filmmaker: The opening night documentary allows Bushwick Bill the opportunity to speak on his own behalf and tell his own story. I was thinking, when Straight Outta Compton came out a few years ago: when I was growing up it was impossible to imagine that one day Universal would spend $35 million to make a film like this. There’s more space for the idea of taking this seriously, and also something like the idea of letting Bushwick Bill speak for himself for 78 minutes. I’m wondering how you feel about all that, especially since you can bring those films into the space where you’re now operating.

B: Look, I feel like the biopic is absolutely necessary to try to put people’s lives and legacies in perspective as much as possible. But it’s always better when you can hear about the struggles, the successes and the failures and what may be, from the person themselves. That’s what I think is the beauty of this documentary—you get to hear everything from Bill. I don’t think Bill was the kind of story that Hollywood would’ve gravitated to in terms of trying to tell it on a major scale. But independent film and documentaries allow us to tell these stories, and they’re just as valid. So, I’m glad that this film does exist, because it’d be very hard to try to explain Bushwick Bill to people. I think this film does the best job that anyone could’ve done, because it lets Bill explain Bill. I’ve known him for many years. I had some very, very good experiences with him, some very awkward, off-putting experiences, but all very genuine to who he was. And this film allows you to see all his moments of genius and his flaws as well. He definitely made some real contributions to hip hop culture and should be celebrated.

Filmmaker: One of the Q&As that you did recently was for Cane River, which was interesting to me because that’s a rediscovered film that’s come back around recently. When these kinds of rediscoveries come back around, do you feel like it’s a chance for you to learn about things that you wouldn’t have learned about otherwise as a viewer?

B: Well, it’s twofold for me, because I’m good friends with the son [Sacha Jenkins] of the director [Horace Jenkins]. I’ve known him for many years and we’ve talked about many things, but this was one thing we’d never talked about, and he’s a big part of having this film be re-presented to the public. So, it was good to see not only a film that I’d not seen, but then, because the son is a director now, as the father was, there are certain things that I wasn’t looking at and was able to ask him about: “Hey, are these similar lessons that you learned from your father?” We had a long conversation before we did the interview, and I was just very intrigued, like “Yo, we never talked about this, bro. This is a big deal.” And he was like, “Well, you know, I was very young when a lot of this stuff was going on.” And his father being one of the founders of Sesame Street and all these amazing things—because of the fact that I’d shown interest in the film, I got all of this residual benefit and information, you know? I feel like I get more out of these things sometimes than maybe the festival gets out of it, because I love the process so much and get all of this insider information. It’s a win-win for me.

Filmmaker: These days, what do you like to watch: older stuff, newer stuff? And how do you like to watch it? Are you a theater guy? Do you have a home theater setup?

B: For me it’s at home or maybe in hotels. I still travel extensively, so most of what I take in is with my iPad. I have the newer one that’s bigger, so it gives me a little bit more of a cinematic experience. But I really like foreign productions. Korea has been killing it over the last couple of years. Obviously a lot of these Scandinavian and Norwegian dramas have been really good. But I think the best thing that I’ve found over the last couple of years—I mean, Peaky Blinders. Is there anything Cillian Murphy can’t do at this point? It’s so well written, so well directed. I love how they use a lot of modern music in their scenes, because you understand exactly what the context of that music is, and the underlying meaning and message of a lot of this modern punk music, especially like a lot of the British punk music. You know where that angst comes from, but it’s translated to this olden-time energy, but it all makes sense because they were very punk for their time.

Like everyone else, I’m getting everything from Netflix, Amazon, all these different streaming services. That’s the beauty of everything, right? Everyone is fighting for content, so TV shows and documentaries and movies that would’ve never been put into production are getting greenlit and financed. That’s how you can get something like a Squid Game, Someone says, “You know what? We’ve got money for this, let’s give it a shot,” and then it translates. I’m sure they expected Squid Game to be more of a localized thing. I know they wouldn’t have expected it to go as far as it did, because I think both the artist and the studio would’ve structured the deal a lot different.

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