“We Didn’t Even Have Time For a Table Read”: Cooley High Director Michael Schultz
Forty years ago, a film crew with exploitation financing and art-house ambitions arrived in Chicago to create Cooley High, a funny and poignant slice of life that would eventually become a classic. The movie — which tells the story of black teenagers growing up in the Cabrini-Green housing project as they fall in and out of love, get into trouble, and try to figure out their futures — served as a launching pad for actors Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Glynn Turman, and Garrett Morris, and provided inspiration for a later generation of filmmakers that included John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers. It also announced its director, Michael Schultz, as a major new talent capable of blending comedy and drama in surprising, affecting ways – a promise that would be fulfilled in later Schultz films such as Car Wash, Greased Lightning, and Carbon Copy. Taking his cues from Italian neorealism rather than Hell Up in Harlem and Superfly, Schultz crafted an exquisite coming of age story that stands alongside Mean Streets and Diner as a seminal American film about boys on the verge of becoming (or not becoming) men. Newly available on Blu-ray for a new generation to discover, Cooley High, like most of Schultz’s films, holds up better than ever, and I sat down with its director – who is still going strong, with a prolific television output – to get the story behind the movie that launched his career.
Filmmaker: You had an extremely successful career as a theater director before moving into film in the early 1970s. Was film where you always wanted to end up, or did you initially intend to make a career primarily on the stage?
Schultz: The goal was always film, but theater was my way in. Coming out of high school I wanted to be the Colin Powell of the Air Force – I wanted to fly jets. The year I graduated, the Air Force Academy was taking one person from every state in the union; you had to take a bunch of tests and get your congressman to recommend you and all of that. I ended up coming in second in the state of Wisconsin, so if the guy who was ahead of me had decided not to go, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking. He did decide to go, and they offered me a place at West Point as a consolation prize. I didn’t really want to be in the Army – I was more into flying than killing people – so I said okay, if I can’t fly jets, I’ll fly rockets. I’ll be an astronaut. I studied astronautical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and discovered in my Freshman year that I wasn’t cut out for it. There’s a reason I came in second on the pilot tests, and that’s my math skills – calculus kicked my ass!
I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I just decided to study the things I was interested in. I spent a lot of time in an art-house movie theater watching Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni and all of these great foreign filmmakers who were telling stories in a completely different way. I sat in the back of the theater wishing I could do that, because we have so many stories in our own culture that are not being told, but I didn’t have the slightest clue how to get into it. I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin! The only film schools at the time were NYU, USC, and UCLA. I figured the closest I could get was to study theater, so I went to this great theater school at Marquette University, where the Jesuit priest who was running the program had been a classmate of Elia Kazan. The theater program was not financially supported by the university – it was tolerated, but not supported. So we needed ticket sales to pay for our shows – it was almost like being in an Off-Broadway theater where you survived by how good your play was, because if you didn’t sell tickets you couldn’t buy costumes or lights or whatever you needed for your production. You also had to do everything if you wanted to stay in the program – act, dance, build sets, make costumes – so I got an incredible education. There was no film program, but I was working with great material – Shakespeare, Genet, etc. – and learning how to work with actors.
I had a theory that if I made a reputation as a theater director, eventually somebody would offer me a movie. I went to New York and got involved in an acting class, and the guy who was running it was starting a new theater called the American Place Theater, which was designed to encourage writers in other disciplines to write for theater. He offered me a job as an assistant stage manager, and I wound up acting with Frank Langella and Roscoe Lee Browne because I happened to fit a part that needed filling. The play won five Obie awards and we did a TV version for PBS, but I was a terrible actor because I was always looking around at everyone else and thinking about how they should be acting and how I could direct the play better. Eventually an old classmate of mine came back from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he got a job at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. He asked me if I wanted to be in the acting company, and I said only if he hired my wife, and only if I could direct one of the plays. He said okay, and I was supposed to direct The Emperor Jones – I guess because I was the black guy – but they couldn’t find a director for Waiting for Godot. John Lithgow’s father, Arthur Lithgow, was the artistic director of the theater, and I convinced him that I was the best person to direct Waiting for Godot. I did that and Emperor Jones and got great reviews, and I sent those reviews to Douglas Turner Ward, who was starting the Negro Ensemble Company. I wound up directing their first play and winning an Obie for that, which led to a Broadway show where I hired a young Al Pacino. My wife played the female lead opposite him and all three of us were nominated for Tony awards – Al won. A producer came up to me after one of the performances and said “I’m doing this little movie called To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, do you want to direct it?” Of course I said yes, and that was my first film.
Filmmaker: How did you handle the technical aspects of film that were different from what you had grown accustomed to on the stage?
Schultz: The whole time I was working in theater I was watching every great film I could, reading every book on filmmaking that I could get my hands on, reading all the biographies of the great filmmakers, so there was some self-education going on. Then the producer of my first film was smart enough to give me a really good director of photography and a great editor, Victoria Hochberg, who went on to become a director herself. She would come to the set and tell me what shots would match and coach me on the technical details, and then when I got to the editing room I really got an education on the pieces you need to put a movie together. It was basically on the job training.
Filmmaker: How did the script for Cooley High come to you?
Schultz: I directed an independently produced film that was never released – the producer died, and I’m still trying to find a copy somewhere. I have no idea where it wound up. But the editor on that film was working with the producer Steve Krantz, and Steve was trying to get Eric Monte to write this script based on his teenage experiences growing up poor in Chicago. Eric was a good storyteller, but he had never written a screenplay, so Steve put us together to see if I could make a movie out of Eric’s ideas. The initial script they sent me wasn’t very good; it had some good ideas, but it was a jumble. I met with Eric and realized that if I went over to his house every day with a stenographer and got him to tell his stories, I could pull them together into a script. It took us about a month to get our first draft, and when we took it to the studio, AIP, there was a really smart executive there who said “This is good, now take every scene and try to tell it in a way that you’ve never seen done before.” To give you an example, we had written a scene where Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) comes home and finds his college acceptance letter and is really happy. Well, my son at the time was a toddler who had a habit of finding things to put in the toilet. So we changed the scene to be Cochise looking for the letter, not finding it, and then discovering his little brother putting it in the toilet. Things like that infused the entire film.
They never officially gave us a green light. They couldn’t figure out if they really wanted to make the movie, and I said, “Look, this is Chicago. If we don’t go there and start shooting before winter comes, forget it.” So we went to Chicago to set up an office and start casting before the studio gave us a green light, because we needed all these kids and didn’t have money to hire a lot of SAG actors. I got Glynn Turman and Garrett Morris, both of whom I had worked with in theater, and Larry Hilton-Jacobs, who was new to me but just perfect for the part. Everybody else was from the community. My wife did the casting, and she would talk with agents who would give her these clean-cut, scrubbed kids who didn’t look at all like they came from the hood. One day I was sitting with a couple of young people who owned a drug store in Cabrini-Green. I complained about my inability to find the thug types that I needed, and they pointed across the street and said, “Oh, like those two guys?” I said, “Yeah, who are they?” It turned out they were connected to a major gang in Chicago. I told them I was making a movie and they got really interested, so I invited them to audition; the one who could read coached his partner, who couldn’t read, and they were perfect for the parts.
The studio didn’t want Garrett Morris because in their minds a teacher should be somebody like Sidney Poitier. They didn’t want the girl because she was too light. I said, “We come in all colors of the rainbow thanks to you!” After a while they let me have all the people I wanted to cast.
Filmmaker: The sense of camaraderie is incredibly convincing – you really feel like all these kids are longtime friends. Did you have a lengthy rehearsal period?
Schultz: We didn’t even have time for a table read! But I think that the material was so familiar to everybody that all they had to do was be themselves. The young people we cast in Chicago were very talented – they just didn’t have training – so Glynn and Larry and Garrett and my wife all worked with them to make them more comfortable in front of the camera.
Filmmaker: I would assume that having limited resources shapes not only the performances but also the look of the film. When you’re shooting everything on location on cramped spaces you have to choose certain compositions and lenses by necessity. How much of the visual style is dictated by circumstance?
Schultz: Everything on a low-budget movie is dictated by circumstance. When you don’t have the ability to pull a wall, you have to find the lens and the staging within the frame that the location will accommodate. Sometimes you really have to get creative – in the scene where Glynn runs into the bathroom to hide from the bad guys, that bathroom was so small there was no way to get a camera in there. And back then, we’re talking cameras – not DSLRs – so we cut a hole in the wall. But what it gives you is a certain energy that you wouldn’t get if you were on a stage.
Filmmaker: And then you’re shooting in Chicago, which wasn’t much of a production center at that time.
Michael Schultz: Mahogany was filmed there, but that was a big Teamster production and they had people shooting at them because they didn’t make the necessary neighborhood connections. They just invaded. But no, there was no film community there. I was amazed we found a director of photography, a guy who came from commercials. Most of the crew was white, which was interesting in and of itself because most of them were rightfully afraid to work in Cabrini-Green – it was one of the toughest ghettos in the country at that time.
Filmmaker: How much to you plan your shots? On the continuum between, say, Alfred Hitchcock, who storyboarded everything, and Blake Edwards, who would just do it on the fly once he saw what the actors were doing, where do you fall?
Michael Schultz: With Cooley High we had so little time to shoot it, and such a low budget, that I knew I had to maximize every hour that I had – there wasn’t going to be time to figure things out on the set. They couldn’t afford a storyboard artist, so I went to an art school nearby and got an art student who would come over to my apartment every night and draw what I wanted to see visually after I figured out the minimum number of set-ups I needed to get the story across. Every shot in that movie was storyboarded.
Filmmaker: It’s funny that you mentioned Fellini earlier as one of your heroes, because I’ve always thought of Cooley High as a kind of American I, Vitelloni. Did that film or any others serve as specific influences for you?
Michael Schultz: I did use a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord in the classroom – when the kids are passing the ink back that’s going to be used to fake a bloody nose, that camera move was lifted from Fellini. But not much else, because the setting was so specific it was kind of its own thing.
Filmmaker: One thing that’s very specific is the use of music, which is fantastic. It was the film that established you as a director who was very adept at fusing popular music with your imagery [Schultz would go on to direct Car Wash, Sgt, Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Krush Groove, Disorderlies, and other music-themed films]. Was the use of the Motown songs part of the conception from the beginning?
Michael Schultz: No, it came during shooting. During that scene where the kids are dancing the kind of slow grind in the apartment, I just started hearing Motown in my head, and then started thinking of all the great songs they had that we could use. Back then, no one valued that kind of music except for those of us who had grown up with it. We put the songs in the film as we were shooting and editing, and afterward just went to Motown and begged them to let us use them. We used twelve or fifteen songs and paid very little for them, but that’s one of the reasons the movie was unavailable on VHS and DVD for so long – until Universal bought Motown, we couldn’t clear the music rights for a reasonable price.
Filmmaker: At the time, American International Pictures was essentially an exploitation company. Did they understand what you were trying to do?
Michael Schultz: No! Sam Arkoff, the head of the company, had a vision for it, but he never really communicated it to the people beneath him. When the marketing people saw it, they said, “How are we supposed to sell this?” They looked at it as a black movie, and they were shocked when it was released in Canada to big numbers. But my theory was that we would make it so specific to the culture and the people that it wouldn’t be about race at all – it would be about the kids, and that’s what would make it translate to a wider audience.
Filmmaker: Well, another part of its appeal, I think, is the wide range of tones. You veer from comedy to tragedy and alternate silly scenes with poignant ones, and that became a hallmark of your next several films. Car Wash, for example, has a few moments of great seriousness interspersed with the farce, especially when it comes to the ending with the Bill Duke character.
Michael Schultz: In Cooley High, I wanted the audience to fall in love with the kids and their hijinks, so that when the tragedy happened it would really feel like a loss. I wanted to show the heart of these guys in a way that hadn’t been seen in the Blaxploitation movies, where everyone was just a badass. With Car Wash…originally I turned it down, but then I was talking with Suzanne de Passe, who was Berry Gordy’s right hand person, and she said “Are you crazy? This is a Hollywood movie! If it’s not what you want, take the job and make it what you want.” I followed her advice and took the job, with the idea being that you needed to bring out the serious elements in the script to counter the hijinks. Universal hated that idea – they said you can’t mix comedy and drama! – and we fought about it through the entire process. They didn’t like the serious ending I wanted, and I convinced them to let me shoot in chronological order because we couldn’t agree on an ending. We went a couple days over schedule, and finally the studio called and said, “Schultz, are you gonna finish this fuckin’ film?” I said, “Yeah, if I can finish it with the ending as written,” and they finally said okay. They made me take out a few of the other melancholy scenes, but ultimately it all worked out.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. He also hosts a monthly podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.