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Filmmaker John Singleton Rides the Peak TV Wave to Recharge His Career

The Uber driver can’t come fast enough for John Singleton.

The filmmaker is hopping between studio lots in Hollywood on a warm afternoon in early November as he tends to the two drama series he’s launching this year: BET’s “Rebel” and FX’s “Snowfall.”

At the Lot complex just off Formosa, Singleton is working with longtime collaborators on the sound mix and other post-production touches for the two-hour telepic that will introduce “Rebel” on March 28. In a nutshell, the series, Singleton explains, is “ ‘Shaft’ with a black woman.”

After reviewing the progress on “Rebel,” Singleton, 49, hurries out to the street, searching for the Uber while talking a blue streak, punctuated by a distinctive high-pitched giggle when he really wants to make a point. He’s revved up about the promise of the series and the breakout potential of his star, Danielle Moné Truitt.

“I call it film noir with neo soul, neo noir,” he enthuses. “I look at ‘Rebel’ as a Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Sam Spade, Mike Hammer kind of thing, but with a sista, a real sista — drinking, fighting, screwing around. She’s a hard woman for a certain reason. She’s a war hero. I told BET: ‘We gotta go hard. We gotta go real hard with this.’ ”

Singleton is taking that same approach as he immerses himself in the television business after 25-plus years in film. A few years ago he set his sights on crashing the TV arena, with help from friends including Lee Daniels, the “People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” production team, and “Billions” co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien.

At a moment when movies are harder and harder to get off the ground, Singleton has found a warm reception in TV. In addition to “Rebel” and “Snowfall,” he has exec produced a documentary on the 1992 Los Angeles riots for A&E Network, “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” to air April 18.

Singleton is energized by the fast pace of television production and the voracious appetite for material amid the boom times of Peak TV. He’s also loving the creative rivalry he feels after being blown away by great auteur efforts such as Donald Glover’s FX series “Atlanta.”

“It’s not pressure for me, it’s competition. These motherf—ers are coming so hard, I gotta come harder,” Singleton says, with obvious glee. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s doing this, I gotta do this.’ ”

He started a push to field scripts for TV development a few years ago, without much traction at first. But then he got a call from Daniels offering him the chance to make his TV directing debut on the first season of “Empire.” Daniel gave Singleton a lot of leash to put his stamp on the show’s fifth installment, “Dangerous Bonds.” The rollicking episode cemented the force-of-nature status of Cookie Lyon’s character, played by Taraji P. Henson, a good friend
of Singleton’s.

Around that time, Singleton heard about “People v. O.J. Simpson” coming together at FX. He became a man on a mission. He knew executive producer Nina Jacobson and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and he went unabashedly into Johnnie Cochran mode in making his case.

“I got them in a room. I said, ‘It’s an L.A. story. I’m from L.A. I met O.J. I gotta be part of this,’ ” Singleton says. “I said, ‘You guys gotta get this right. You have to have a real black perspective on this — you can’t just whitewash it.’ ”

Singleton left the room with a commitment that led to his directing the episode “The Race Card,” an unflinching look at the racial politics in play during Mark Fuhrman’s testimony and the defense team’s “redecorating” of Simpson’s Brentwood home for the jury’s visit. That episode of the much-lauded series landed Singleton nominations for an Emmy and Directors Guild Award.

More recently, he directed an episode of the Showtime drama “Billions” that’s set to air April 2. Koppelman and Levien tailored the episode to Singleton’s strengths, with an intense confrontation scene between two key characters and an action sequence involving a very pricey car.

“There were a few scenes that, as we were writing, we said to each other, ‘Can’t wait to see what John will do with this one,’ ” says Koppelman. Adds Levien: “We knew he’d crush it. And he did.”

The whirlwind of activity now has made Singleton lament his decisions years ago to pass on helming episodes of HBO’s “The Wire” and FX’s “The Shield.”

“One of the biggest regrets of my whole career was turning down an offer to direct on the first season of ‘The Wire.’ That would have been so perfect for me,” Singleton says. “I was so smug about it. I thought, ‘Those people are never going to get the urban stuff right.’ [‘Wire’ co-creators] David Simon and Ed Burns — they’re like gods to me.”

Singleton may have come late to the TV party, but he’s making up for lost time by shepherding no less than 20 hours of scripted TV this year.

“Rebel” demonstrates his love of stylish genre fare and finding hot-shot newcomers. Truitt “is gonna be huge,” he promises, crediting his longtime casting director Kimberly Hardin with the discovery.

“Snowfall,” targeted for a summer debut, is a deeply personal project for the filmmaker, who made his mark, fresh out of USC at the age of 23, with his debut movie, 1991’s “Boyz n the Hood.” That movie made him the first African-American and the youngest person ever to earn an Oscar nomination for directing. (He also grabbed an original screenplay nomination for “Boyz.”)

“Snowfall” is set in Los Angeles in 1983, just as the influx of cheap cocaine and crack was devastating the inner-city neighborhoods where Singleton was raised. It has three separate but interconnected storylines of people enmeshed in the drug trade — a CIA agent; a Latino family; and the central character, African-American teen Franklin Saint, who is bused to school from his home in South Central L.A. to the wealthier and whiter environs of the San Fernando Valley. The series raises provocative questions about the sources and motivation behind the cocaine avalanche that fell on those who lived south of the Santa Monica freeway.

The Saint character, played by British actor Damson Idris, reflects Singleton’s own high school experience. He had the benefit of a stable home life: His father worked as a manager of drugstores and was in real estate, while his mother handled pharmaceutical sales. But the fallout from the crack plague touched everyone.

“Everybody in my family and all of my friends were changed by this, totally changed,” he says. “There wouldn’t be ‘Boyz n the Hood’ if there wasn’t the crack-cocaine trade. I probably wouldn’t have been a filmmaker if it wasn’t for that.”

Singleton came roaring out of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with screenwriting awards, a coterie of CAA agents (he was signed during his sophomore year; today he’s with ICM Partners), and the “Boyz” spec script that put him on the map.

Then as now, he had no shortage of confidence in his vision. It was on display in his first studio meeting, at Columbia Pictures, after creative execs Stephanie Allain and Amy Pascal championed the “Boyz” script to their boss, studio chief Frank Price.

Singleton, all of 22, insisted on directing the movie, despite never having made a film before. Price was ultimately sold by the emotional depth in the script and Singleton’s instincts. When the budding helmer explained to Price that he could handle a scene that called for a police helicopter to hover overhead by using lighting and sound effects, Price knew Singleton had the goods.

“By the time I met John I felt I knew him very well,” Price says. “Anybody who could write like that had to be a very creative and very perceptive fellow with real sensitivity.”

The professional association developed into an enduring friendship for the two men. They still meet regularly for breakfast in Santa Monica, and Singleton seeks Price’s thoughts on a script whenever he embarks on a new project.

During a telephone interview, Price’s wife, Katherine, couldn’t resist coming on the line to add her perspective. “We’ve always loved John,” she says. “He was always a good, smart guy with a good heart, and serious about what he was doing. He was smart enough to get it the first time.”

Now what Singleton is focused on getting is success in TV. He betrays his roots as a student of screenwriting and film theory when he offers a spontaneous analysis of what works in TV compared with film, and what it takes to “elevate” good material into greatness.

“Producing in television, we’re in the business of voyeurism,” Singleton says. “The only way you’re going to get eyes on [a show] is if people feel like they’re seeing something they haven’t seen before — almost as if they’re looking up through a window that they shouldn’t be looking into, but they can’t stop looking into. It’s a totally different form than film.”

During that two-mile Uber ride from the “Rebel” lot to Raleigh Studios where “Snowfall” is in production, Singleton gets a Skype call connecting him to a wardrobe session with Truitt and “Rebel” associate producer Dion Fearon.

“You don’t have to worry about the clothes,” Fearon tells him as she runs through various selections. Still, there’s a quick discussion about whether a particular skirt is right for a scene on a bike. Finally Fearon instructs Singleton, “I sent you a text message. Respond!”

Singleton giggles. “I’m surrounded by attitude — women with attitude,” he says.

At Raleigh Studios, the production of “Snowfall” is bustling. Idris films a green-screen sequence in a car outdoors, while inside director Dan Attias is working on a scene in a drug supply house where several matronly actors methodically fill up bags of faux cocaine.

Singleton is energized by the swift pace and the affection that cast and crew members have for him. With his work in television, he enjoys playing the role of producer as much as writing or directing for a medium that is open to the stories he’s most interested in telling.

“It’s not just about television changing,” he says. “It’s about the whole entertainment business changing. That’s what I’m trying to be a part of. I like to be an idea person. I like to pull different people together and find new talent.”

Singleton looks around the “Snowfall” set while keeping an eye on his phone where “Rebel”-related questions are pouring in. For a man who has always sought to work on his terms, the opportunity to executive produce two new TV series at the same time is pretty much heaven-sent.

“There’s hardly any precedent for a guy like me to have the career that I’ve had,” Singleton says. “Because I grew up the way I grew up, I’m an in-your-face kind of guy. I developed that as a defense mechanism to survive in the streets. I do that in Hollywood in the service of my passion.”

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