3blackchicks.com

Switch to desktop

The Diva's interview with Taylor Hackford

The Diva's interview with
Taylor Hackford
The Director of
Ray (2004)

The Diva's Ray Movie review

Copyright Kamal Larsuel, 2004


Question: Any Dramatic License in this film?

Taylor Hackford:
90% true. 95% true. The dramatic license that I took was rather minor. You have to understand that I collaborated for 15 years with this film with Ray Charles. So, I did my own independent research. I've read is autobiography. And I feel his autobiography is a difficult story to perceive because I do tell the story from the point of view of the artist, only. Because there are always other sides to that issue, I went out myself and probably talked to about 35 other people who were intimately involved in his life. And I wrote a screen story back in the late 80s. And unfortunately it took so long to get this film financed. Not so much that we couldn't have gotten it together to make but because we couldn't find the money. I tried to, myself, find, you know when you meet Ray Charles, I didn't know what to expect, and I went to talk to Ray Charles Jr. to try to convince him to give me the rights. The man walks into the room, alone. No cane, no seeing-eye dog. Walks around 5 obstacles, walks up to me and says "Hey Taylor; Put some skin in the pocket." And then he walked away from me, walked around 4 or 5 more things, sat behind his desk and said "did you see the Lakers last night?" "Could you believe that 3 pointer shot Magic shot at the end of the game to win it?" SEE. SEE. You know, this is Ray Charles. So controlling of his own environment. Invincible. I initially thought the man could see. He's perpetrated one of the biggest hoaxes ever, on the world, lol. But of course, he had both eyes taken out. The man could not see. They give you an indication of how in control he was. If you want to have an interpretation of a straight ahead traditional biopic, that's fine.

My sense was, I wanted to tell a real story. A visceral story. When period movies are made and you kind of look through the gauze to the past. The Ray movie is a revolutionary movie. I wanted those scenes in those clubs to be as intense and sweaty. Ray Charles played 8 sets a night. He had 10 minutes off and played for fifty. If he didn't get people out of their seats and on their feet dancing, they'd throw his ass out of there. That's what he said to me. So, I wanted to try to portray that, but I also wanted to tell a story that was a lot more complicated than that. This is a man, if you wanted to deal with his entire life, you could deal with 75 years. Because all those are interesting. But I had to make a choice. My choice is always that, you should talk about the struggle. This is a film about life impacting art. As oppose to vice versa. In other words, what created Ray Charles? What was involved in making him the incredible icon that we all know? I believe that the things that happened to him, in his life, impacted and made that work. And kind of, in its own strange way, it's a musical. Because the songs in the picture are pretty much in chronological order. I tried to take what happened in his life and showing how that music came out of those experiences. And I think there is one song that is out of order. And that's Hard Time, which is at the very end of the film. So most of the other things are actually in the chronological order as they are depicted in the film. Is every detailed nuance of Ray Charles' life and sin in this picture? Of course not. You can't. But, he gave me a huge gift. He said "Taylor, you know, I'm no angel. And I don't need to have myself depicted as such. Just tell the truth." And that is an incredible gift. So, if you want to point out the inaccuracies, I will deal with them. I'd be happy to. But I stand by the picture. It's true and real, I believe, within the context, of what I as a filmmaker, decided to tell. And I have certain limitations because of time, because of whatever. But, I pretty much stand by everything that's there.

Question:
Being aware of his illness, did you feel a sense of urgency to get this film out there before he passed away?

Taylor Hackford:
No. Yes, I was aware that he was ill. It was very apparent as time passed. Now that I look back I start to realize that he probably was aware of his illness, probably 3 years ago when I was just getting the film pre-produced and ready to go, to shoot. We were in the studio together. Again, the music of this film is used in various ways. I was blessed with the fact that Ray Charles was recorded by Tom Dowd. Who was the greatest engineer of his generation at Atlantic Records. So, in 1953 when he's recording "I Got a Woman", I'm using "I Got a Woman" in this picture. Do you know how unusual that is? That presents certain problems on its own. We did a little bit of enhancing when you cut to the horn section. You'll hear the horns more, we did that. And ultimately I was blessed on that level. When Ray had been traveling with Lowell Fulton, Fulton had not been recorded well. So Rays' guys said ŒRay, do you think you might be able to give me a name of somebody who might be able to arrange these things to work?" And Ray said, "I did the arranging, why don't I do it." I mean, incredible. So Ray went into the studio and he played the piano. In that sequence when you hear Jaime alone in the bar and the band has left with the girls and he's left there alone; trying to portray the loneliness of this man. Basically, however brilliant he is, Ray Charles, however many woman, how huge the audience response he still returns to the same place; he's alone in the dark. And I wanted to portray that in this film. So, in that instance, I'm sitting in the studio, describing him how he's having trouble with Lowell, Wilbur screwing him over money; the band is kind of going out, leaving him there. These are the moments leading to his heroin addiction. These are the moments that he's talked about as the pain of being on the road and not even knowing where he was. And I'm describing it to him and I want you (Ray) to sit at the piano playing this quiet, contemplative number. And he does something that is very beautiful. And I say Ray? And he says, "Well, what do you think of that?" I say Ray, to be honest with you, I think it's great. But it sounds like your playing for a bunch of people. This is you alone, in this place, playing from your heart from yourself. And his response was kind of like, "hey Ray Charles ain't gonna play bad for nobody." And I say, I would never ask you to. And around the place, the musicians are over there, their all Ray Charles' musicians and their all going Œdon't disagree with the master here'. Now I wasn't disagreeing with him, but I have to get my film. So, I say no Ray, I really believe Lowell was messing around with you or Wilbur was messing around with you. The guys have left and they always made you feel low. And he kind of went, Œfuck it'. I mean it was like, you know, tough! So, I went well, I'll think about something else. And as I turned my back to go out, he says, "Well, if they had done that to me. And if I had been screwed on the money and if I was alone and had felt that way, I might play something like this." And he just went; bang! There it was. It was a collaboration like all collaborations. I'm talking about one of the worlds great geniuses. And at the same time he is trying to understand what I needed for the film. And it was a fantastic experience. And then we role right into "Everyday I Have the Blues" that he's arranged and he plays piano on. And Chris Thomas King, who is a fabulous artist in his own life, who plays Lowell Fulson who sang and played guitar on. So, you have those moments of real collaboration and closeness. I mean, it was a life experience for me. But, getting back to your question; I start to realize now that he probably knew he was sick, although he was vibrant and alive and completely on top of his game. There was no portrayal of any weakness. But that very time, he gathered all 12 of his children from around the world, for the first time, together. And I now realize, looking at that, what he was doing. We went to shoot the film and when I came back I saw him and he seemed to be in fine shape. He was there on the set with us when we were at RPM Studios in Los Angeles, he seemed fine. But I went into the editing room and I spent about 10 weeks to cut it and I took a rough cut to RPM to show him because he would say he wanted to see it but he sat next to the Šand I could tell that he was not the Ray Charles that I knew from before. And he was starting to deteriorate. Typical Ray Charles fashion, it went about 3 months more than the doctors ever thought possible. He was dying, dying; he'll never make it past this. And he was proving them all wrong. And at certain point, Ray was going to do like always, he was going to do it his way. And he's going to prove them wrong. And of course, when it happens, it's a huge shock. Yeah, it's painful he's not hear to see the film. But ultimately he did see the rough cut. First thing he asked to see was, I want to see my mom, I want to hear what you put in for my mom. That was the most important thing to him. And he loved it.

Question:
What experiences did you take from working on music films like La Bamba to Ray?

Taylor Hackford:
Music has always been an important thing to me in my life and understand I've worked in the music business. And trying to understand the real nature of musicians and real musical creations. Clearly those are other pieces of work that related to the same field. This to me is a much more substantial piece because you have to watch how these things are created. And I was dropping in small bits of pieces of what really happens when someone is there or recording. And also, creating something on the road or devising. Whether the audience gets it or not, that process of watching him busted in Indianapolis. Coming home and sitting alone at his piano in his den, playing You Don't Know Me; you know, that whole concept of what Ray Charles went to, when he was in his lowest depth. He did what he loved. He went to Country Music. This is a guy; he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. He loved songs and he loved Country Music. Ray Charles, in his own way, it's like at the beginning, Ray Charles changed American music, not once but twice. Totally. Back in the early 50s when he was doing I Got a Woman, he was blasphemy. The record didn't mean anything to the white community. Because whites weren't even listening to that. But the black community, you did not mix Gods music, with the Devils music. At Saturday night, in the Juke Joint, you're communing with the devil. And you go out Sunday morning, you are dealing with God. And it's serious stuff. And there are people who wanted to string him up! He changed it. He's the first guy to use a 3 girl backup group. The vocal stylings of gospel and all these things. That's what he did. So, all of a sudden, that's accepted. Now, all the worldŠElvis does it. Now in 1962 he goes and takes basically white music, country western, and he starts recording that. Any country western artist and I don't care who they are today, will say Modern Sounds in Country and Westerns is still one of the greatest country albums ever recorded. This is a man; I was trying to portray, to answer your question, who you couldn't define. And he justŠbecause he was blind, going back to Rays' line when he was sent to St. Augustine', to the state school for the blind in Florida. When he got there, there was a big fence down the middle. And the white kids were on one side and the black kids were on the other. And his response was, at the time, "Well, how the hell we're all gonna know who's who? We're all blind." And I think that was one of the things that was Ray Charles great gift. I never found any; any black person has room for resentment in real life. Ray Charles was just a guy who didn't have any. Ray Charles was just a guy who was proud of who he was. If you looked at his organization it was almost entirely African American, but he didn't hold any rank. He just was there and did what he did, sang what he felt did what he did, related to you in that way and those are the things that I was trying to portray in it.

Question:
You've taken 15 years to put this movie together. Was it because you were waiting for the right man to play Ray?

Taylor Hackford:
I think you hit it. I don't know who I would have cast if I had made the film originally in the late 80s. You live or die when you make a biopic by the person who plays the role. Jaime Foxx is the man for this. I can't imagine anybody even coming close to what he does. His level of commitment; it's a great experience from the point of view of the director. I can give an actor tools to prepare themselves for the role. But they've got to pick them up and use them. And Jaime from the very beginning, we just fused this partnership. It was a fantastic experience. The man's commitment was total. I asked him to do the role blind. He said fine. A lot of actors would go, yeah that'd be cool, I'll experiment with that. Maybe I'll do a half day and kind of feel what it's like. I asked Ray to take his glasses off and let me photograph his eyes. And he did. And we made prosthetics to look exactly like Ray Charles' eyes. And you put them on. And they cover, it just glues on. Jaime had to be led. You never touch Ray. He grabs you by the arm and you just lead him in a very light way, whatever, and I would lead Jaime onto the set. He had people with him and help him take him to the bathroom. I mean, this was a commitment that was total. I made the choice that we had to use Ray Charles once he finds himself when he's imitating the acting cold, that's Jaime. Jaime is fabulous. I didn't know at the beginning, but I do know now, I learned very quickly; he's a consertment musician. He went to university on a piano scholarship. But, I wanted to use Ray Charles; these are masterpieces. You don't mess with masterpieces and I used the real stuff. That means that Jaime Foxx has toŠbut, in today's world you record the vocals and the piano track separate. You could flip it if it's out of sync. These are monaural till 1959, everything in this. In that one sequence in I Believe to My Soul, you see, Tom Dowd had the first 8 track. Up till then, everything is monaural. So, Jaime Foxx can't be flipped. You can't take the vocal and flip it. And I'm going from his fingers on the keys to his mouth and back down. You know what a gift that is to a director, if you're doing a musical? And for you as an audience looking at it going, I know this is bullshit. You know, show me in this film where Jaime Foxx is out of sync? You're not going to find it. And learning those piano parts; Ray Charles is not somebody who goes, IŠAMŠ; no. It was all singing off the note. That's what Ray did. So whatever his hands are doing, his vocals are doing differently. Jaime had to learn both those things simultaneously. It was an incredible gift. But I think we are all aware of great artists and we all see them in different ways. You never know how great somebody is until they have a role. African Americans in this community don't always have these great roles. And this was one that I reallyŠI chose Jaime. I introduced him to Ray and Ray put him through his paces. And ultimately after being really tough on him, he got up and hugged himself and said "this is it, this is the kid." Ray anointed Jaime himself. I watched Jaime grow from whatever his regular height was, till about 10 feet, right there at that moment. But there are those moments that ultimately say, the man himself said you could do it. Then there is that responsibility and that pressure that said Jaime was going to do it. And he was just great.

Question:
In the early part of the film, Ray fell victim to money scams, where he wanted to be paid in singles. Do you think that was still a concern for Ray as he became wealthier and more successful?

Taylor Hackford:
Oh yeah. The thing that is interesting about Ray Charles is that in all the drama to the Jeff Brown to the Joe Adams syndrome, it's all real, it all happened. And Joe Adams is a very smart guy. But Ray Charles never had a manager in his life or a lawyer in his life that was leading the band. He did it himself. Little bits and pieces, I tried to put in there. Cause he told me, the first gig he had, some guy said 5, 10, 15, 20. He goes with 20 bucks and puts it down and says "Can I you take $5 dollars for a room?" And the guy says sir that's going to take 5 of those. And he says "that's five bucks?" And the guy says "no it's not. It's one." Those kinds of rip-offs, you learn. And the late Ray Charles learned; getting paid in singles, to ultimately making million dollar deals. He was just that kind of mind. He was a pretty interesting pragmatic guy. I think he is one of the smartest guys I've ever met. There's no question about it. And he was fantastic to deal with. But he always had his eye on the bacon. He was performing, he knew what he had. But with his momma, he learned a lesson. He almost took it too seriously; stand on your own feet and don't be dependent on anyone. And I believe, seriously, that's what he did. There was no puppet master behind Ray Charles.

Question:
What is the first Ray Charles song that you heard that you said” this is somebody different.” This is somebody I want to follow in my life.

Taylor Hackford:
It as the first time that I heard Ray Charles. In the 4th or 5th grade, I heard “I Gotta Woman.” Which I thought was a very cool song. Uh you know I’m a child of Rock and Roll, so I’ve loved rock and roll from the very beginning. But Ray Charles was a little bit different. The early kind of revolutionary rock-n-roll you had Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or Bo Diddly, for example. I loved that. They were communicating to me as young adolescence. You know school, girls, cars…. Ray Charles was much more sophisticated and for me. My brother was 14 year older than me and he went to the Korean War. When he went, he left all his albums for me to listen to. He was “Be-Bop” so I was listening to Charlie Parker at a really young age 4 or 5 I had these records influencing me and thank goodness that he did that. My brother came back from Korea and had became a professional baseball player and he had these records. Later when I’m listening to Tray Charles, I can tell he has this jazz background. He is much more sophisticated and somehow I can tell this because of my brothers preparation for me .And second of all which I think is important. Ray was more sophisticated but in strange way he was more sexual than anyone else. Little Richard screaming “Jenny Jenny Jenny won’t you come along with me.” Clearly he is like out there, and you can say “Oh this music is taboo or this music is a sin.” The black church experience which analogous of the white culture at the time was saying that kind of music was forbidden, then Ray came along and he was much more subversive because his music came right out of the bedroom. It was easy, it was slow, it was more sexual. Much different than the other music. And later when I was growing up, “What I Say” you know when you are in 4th or 5th grade, you don’t get it. You aren’t sexual, but later in the 9th or 20th grade, when your hormones are raging and you hear “What I Say.” It’s all about fucking. I mean that’s what it is. So, he was very subversive. You know that process of seductiveness and art. It was very cool.

Question:
What artist do you think have been influenced by Ray? I mean when you were talk, the first person that came to my mind was Prince. Especially since he tends to be overtly sexual in his music. Do you think Ray was a strong influence on him?

Taylor Hackford:
Right! I think we need to go back to the very beginning. Elvis Presley loved Ray Charles. Elvis bought every Atlantic record that came out. Lets talk about the first part of the revolution that came out. R&B was something that was more raw, you can go back to Louie Jordan who had real Jazz chops, but also had the ability to play that in his songs so forth. And with the advent of R&B in the late 40s and Ray was a part of that he influenced the guys who changed American culture. Specifically and you can see it - that Elvis did “I Gotta Woman” and “What I Say” as absolute homage to Ray. Ray was the first guy to have a 3 girl backup group. Guess what Elvis’ thing was? Okay so there are some influences. To me, Prince’s early music is influenced by sly Stone who may or may not have been influenced by Ray also. But everybody was influenced by Ray Charles. Prince has a very sophisticated style, but early Prince is very much Sly and the Family Stone. You look at it from the other side. Ray wasn’t the first guy to mix gospel and blues, but he was the first guy to do it and have a hit. You may have heard someone using gospel influences in song, before him, that isn’t the problem. The problem is that Ray Charles did it in ”I gotta a woman” and everyone heard it and that is the controversy. His influence was HUGE. He revolutionizes American music and then 10 years later he does it again, this time with “white” or country music and records one of the most famous albums ever. You talk to any country artist and they will tell you it is one of the 5 greatest country albums ever recorded and by a black man.

This is all part and parcel of the story I was trying to tell. But these are all musical things That is what drew me to the material. But I don’t think you can do a film just by wanting to play music. It’s the story he is telling - it is the story in the music. When I first met Ray Charles, I didn’t know his story. His son had called me and told me he has seen La Bamba and Chuck Berry “all hail rock n roll” and he liked them and he asked, “would you like to do a movie about my dad?” and I said yeah and I went to meet Ray. THEN I read the autobiography and I realized that there was something there. But to my surprise, I couldn’t get funding for the movie. I just couldn’t figure it out.

Question:
Did you learn anything new about the black music experience?

Taylor Hackford:
Well it would be pretty hard- number one for me to say my time with Ray allowed me to discover the African American experience. I grew up in an integrated situation. I’d already done rock n-roll. I’d already done black music. Being around African Americans was not exactly new to me. What was new to me and revolutionary to me was meeting someone who was so overwhelmingly in control. For someone who was blind. I mean if you try to baby him or cut him some slack because of his blindness, he’d kill you. He demanded that you treat him like a man. And he was one of the smartest cats I knew ever. He didn’t talk like it. If he wanted to sound like Prince Charles, he could have. He had the ear and the vocal control. But he chose not to. He said,” I’m a country boy” that’s who and what I am. But he was a sharp as anybody and that is what I wanted to communicate here. Now Jamie helped me immensely. I’m not black, I’m not from that experience. I can listen and I can observe, but I trust the people I’m working with. Jamie said early on and I don’t want to offend anybody, but he said, “I don’t want this to be a bunch of vanilla African Americans. If you look at Ray Charles, he’s the real stuff. And that is what this has to be.” So I cast the film accordingly. People who were incredibly talented people. Regina King. She grew up on television, she is extremely talented and she can make the mainstream jump. She was in “Legally Blond 2. But we had to say forget all of that. If you are going to play Margie Hendricks forget all that artistry and just get down with it and get into it, because if you listen to Margie, that’s who she was. Both Jamie and I partnered up with this in a real sense that he has a burden he can’t spend the rest of his life having people in the African America community saying, “you couldn’t do it, huh? You couldn’t deliver.’ He’s got a huge burden. And I’ve got the burden of being a white man and facing a black community that says, “how dare you fuck up this story.” So that process was both of us realizing that we had to work together. I had to push him from every direction to make his performance better. And he met every challenge. He was fantastic. And that process of learning everytime you make a film, you are learning. And for me- to get back to your question - One of the things I learned from R.C. is to trust you instincts. He trusted his instincts better than anyone I know. And in this process of what happened with the film is that I then took that, I took it and made it work. Jamie had never done anything that had the same level of difficulty. He is a talented man, but what could show that he could do it. I’d seen a couple of roles that he had done. I had done “Devil’s Advocate” I knew Al Pacino and if you can stay on the screen with Al Pachino, you’re good. I knew that he had a small role in “Any Given Sunday” that was great. I had also done “When We Were Kings” and I have original footage of Bodini Brown. I saw him in “Ali” as Bodini Brown and he was the best thing in it. But that was all I had to go on. I went on instinct. Once he told me that he could play the piano; that he started when he was 3; and he lead a gospel band in his church in Texas; and he want to school on a piano scholarship - I said there are too many things right here and I committed to him on instinct. And then we decided to partner up. Because we were going to be evaluated on this movie more than any other because everyone know Ray Charles. So we better do it right or we are going to get our asses kicked.

 

Member
            OFCS

 

Developed by Francis Doody

Top Desktop version