Guest Post: SFFILM Rainin Grantee Chris Cole on Rap, Reinvention, and the Process of (Re)Writing “Rolling Stone”

It’s March 2015. I’m sitting anxiously in the lobby of an Austin hotel waiting for Migos to show up for our interview. I’m a young journalist whose editor lobbed him this opportunity last second in between free shows and drinks at SXSW. Migos? You know them. But keep in mind that this is pre-Bad and Boujee Migos. Before Carpool Karaoke, Mountain Dew Commercials, and a marriage to Cardi B.

The trio showed up late and what followed was a rather dull, hazy, conversation — due in part to my freshman status as an interviewer. But when I began to transcribe the interview days later, it revealed itself to be fascinating for other reasons: Everyone in the interview was sticking to a script. They played their roles within the group that they still play to this day, and gave predictable answers to my admittedly predictable questions. I didn’t know it at the time, but this conversation with Migos provided the blueprint for my feature film script Rolling Stone.

Most rappers are CHARACTERS in the truest sense of the word. It’s why watching Pharrell bug out to Jay-Z over Allure in Fade to Black is so compelling. Or why watching Lil Wayne spill his drink while talking about bidding on one of Frank Sinatra’s cars is hilarious. If you told me Young Thug was going to star in an A24 movie based on his life I would pay top dollar for a front row seat on opening day.

What does the inner life of someone like Quavo or Future look like? On the surface, they’re dynamic, enigmatic, quick witted — and ripe for satire. In the same way that the not-talked-about enough CB4 satirized authenticity in 90s hip hop, I wanted to do that for this new crop of rappers that emerged in the past couple years. And that brought forth the character of Butcher.

Butcher’s doppelgänger in the film is Doug — a music journalist. Being a music journalist can give you a unique amount of access to an artist and their lifestyle. At the same time, you wield a certain amount of power over how the public views the artist. What would Almost Famous look like if it took place today and we took, “You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars’’ to its logical extreme?

In Rolling Stone, Doug has ambitions of being an influential writer despite his latest freelancer role at a clickbait heavy publication. Butcher is an egocentric rapper coasting on newfound fame. They look exactly alike. After Doug interviews Butcher, he haphazardly agrees to play his double in a music video. When one gig as Butcher turns into too many, Doug struggles to find his own voice while reckoning his relationship with the public, substances, and a budding romance with his new editor Ana.

I had completed a draft of this script that was an all-over-the-place broad comedy, but I knew that it was missing something. At the top of 2019, I participated in the Middlebury Script Lab, and shared the script with my mentor Sheril Antonio. Two things came out of that. One, I knew that I needed to center Doug’s character around a specific cause that he wanted to speak out against — this would help justify his reasoning for using Butcher’s platform. Two, I had to figure out what made Doug “angry.”

I decided to look inward for those answers. Summer 2016 was a pivotal moment in the formulation of my own black identity due in large part to the widely circulated videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castillo’s deaths at the hands of police. While I was raised to understand the difference between myself and my white peers at an early age, those videos forced me to reckon with that on another level. How could I translate the palpable feelings of anger and despair that those videos made me feel? What exact place did that have in the story I’m telling? Who am I to say anything about this?

Armed with a whole new set of challenging questions to answer, I knew I needed to do a page one rewrite. I also knew that I needed to speak to the right people in order to tell this story in a way that was accountable and considered. Like clockwork, the application for the SFFILM Rainin Grant came my way through some research. The Rainin Grant supports, “films that address social justice issues-the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges-in a positive and meaningful way through plot, character, theme or setting.” I applied on a whim — and I got it!

The SFFILM Rainin Grant allowed me the time and space to explore the questions around agency, tone, and character development that had put me in a state of writer’s block for about a year. It was fulfilling and encouraging to be a part of a cohort of filmmakers each at different points in their careers and respective projects. Naturally, we were in conversation with each other in a way that developed all of our projects towards their next stages. My cohort, along with the ultra-supportive staff at SFFILM, comprised a large fraction of the team I consulted in drafting my script.

In the new iteration of the script, there’s this comically absurd event that happens involving a police shooting. It’s not at the forefront of the story, but it’s this offscreen event that catalyzes Doug as a character. The story is not about the trauma of that moment, but rather how everyone in this world responds to that moment.

In the wake of these traumatic events, black people still have to get up and perform in our own ways. We have to go to work the next day and pretend to be fine, or not. Beyond that, everyone feels the need to say something — whether it’s right or wrong. And everyone is expected to say something. Even Bratz dolls released a statement on George Floyd’s death last summer. It’s like that Dave Chappelle bit — where is Ja?

A guiding question for me in figuring out these characters is, “What are Doug and Butcher performing in their day-to-day, and what are they performing in response to this event?”

At the moment, I may have more questions than answers. But by the conclusion of my time as an SFFILM Rainin Grantee, I did have some key takeaways. One: Writing a script is a messy, iterative process, and that should be embraced. Two: While filmmaking is an immensely collaborative process, this also extends to my personal writing process. This story is borne out of so many conversations I’ve had with friends, colleagues, and family — directly or indirectly. The people I surround myself with are who inform my work the most.

As a 2021 SFFILM FilmHouse Resident, I’m excited to push the script past the finish line — and hopefully sit across from Migos one day again, this time penning their biopic.

About Chris Cole

As a child, Chris learned to make films by bossing around his siblings to act in parody rap videos in his Rancho Cucamonga, California home. He recently completed his M.A. in Arts Politics at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has collaborated with MTV and BET. His work has been supported by the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation, and appeared on Issa Rae Presents, The Fader, and Pigeons & Planes. He is currently an SFFILM FilmHouse Resident in development on his first feature film Rolling Stone, which was selected for the SFFILM Rainin Grant in Spring 2020. Chris lives in Oakland, CA with his twin brother Noah and a black cat that occasionally lives in the backyard. His work can be viewed at YungChris.com

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