Brad Furman

Brad Furman directed the upcoming film City of Lies, starring Hollywood favorites Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker. The Philadelphia native’s prior work includes noted films The Take, The Infiltrator, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Buried Alive in the Blues. Aside from making feature films, he directed Justin Bieber’s music video for his first single What Do You Mean? off his Purpose album. This multitalented director’s latest film focuses on the investigation around two of America’s most controversial and unsolved cases: the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace {aka Biggie}.

ATM: How are you?

BF: Everything is going well. Keeping busy.

ATM: Have you eaten breakfast already?

BF: No, I am not a big breakfast guy.

ATM & BF: (Laughs).

BF: Actually I love breakfast, but I do not wake up to eat it. Maybe on the weekend.

ATM: What intrigued you in wanting to direct a film focusing around solving the murders of Biggie and Tupac Shakur?

BF: I didn’t take on the film because I thought I was going to solve the case; I am not a detective. For me, the stories of these men had a tremendous impact on my life and the film was a culmination of a lot of experiences and exposures I had been through.

I grew up as a fan of hip-hop and rap. I definitely have an affinity for black culture. Despite being a Jewish male from a suburb of Philadelphia, I listened to UTFO and LL Cool J in the fourth and fifth grades. That was not typical. And due to the friends I grew up with and the things I was exposed to as a young man, it gave me a well-rounded perspective on the influence black culture had on me. So when B.I.G and Tupac started to rise to prominence, they were influential on my maturity and my growth. They become important in shaping how I viewed the world.

When I was living in Atlanta attending Emory University for my freshman year, I saw a picture of Pac in Rolling Stone Magazine. This was the first time I had ever seen him. He had his bandanna tied backward, which would become a signature look he had. It was something about his eyes and the iconography of that image that spoke to me. From that moment forward I was very drawn to him and his music. Pac was a poet, humanitarian and activist. He inspired me.

I then transferred to NYU and saw BIG perform in an underground club before he was famous. It was an incredible experience. B.I.G was raised by a very strong woman, as was Tupac. I was also raised by a strong woman. Despite what many people saw as differences between them, there was a lot of similarity.

As I started to mature and find myself in my late 20s/early 30s, I started to understand the filmmaker I wanted to be. I was exposed to a lot of things in those years that shaped who I would become.

I had been approached to helm the Tupac biopic, All Eyez on Me, when John Singleton had stepped off the project. John and I had a relationship from before, and he was a mentor to me. I didn’t feel that project was the right fit for me at the time, but it did stir an interest inside of me of wanting to be a part of telling Pac’s story.

I read the book LAbyrinth, which my film is based on, more than a decade ago. So I was very familiar with the subject matter. When the script was brought to me, I knew it was the right time in my life as a filmmaker to take on the project. I felt a tremendous responsibility to the families involved. And to pay tribute to the two fallen icons whose unsolved murders lie at the center of this deeply complex time in our history.

ATM: Explain Tupac’s and Biggie’s legacy.

BF: These are two very different men who will forever and always be tied together by circumstance. There is a quote by Quincy Jones, he says, “The tragedy of Tupac is that his untimely passing is representative of too many young black men in this country. . . If we had lost Oprah Winfrey at 25, we would have lost a relatively unknown, local market TV anchorwoman. If we had lost Malcolm X at 25, we would have lost a hustler named Detroit Red. And if I had left the world at 25, we would have lost a big-band trumpet player and aspiring composer–just a sliver of my eventual life potential.”

BIG and Tupac were 24 and 25, respectively, when they were murdered. Somehow, they transcended obscurity despite their young age, but who knows what they would have accomplished? Who knows what they would have given the world.

ATM: Explain the aspects you learned about the unflinching look at late 90s corruption and race relations dealing with these two rappers?

BF: In the film, we are dealing with a different time and place within the LAPD. This was a post-Rodney King, post-O.J. Simpson police department. The climate, the pressures, the general unrest in the department meant that the truth or “doing the right thing” was not the priority. The racial divide in the late-90s in the police department made doing the work difficult, especially for a detective like Russell Poole. He not only had to contend with the facts of the case, but the political pressures from within the department. A white cop accusing a black cop of anything — let alone of murdering one of the biggest rappers of all time — was a very tricky thing. Russell believed if he stuck to the facts he would be OK. He didn’t realize that sometimes politics doesn’t care about the facts.

Money is the driving force behind a lot of the darkest things in our culture and society as a whole. Unfortunately, I think that was the case here. The department could not afford the truth. In Biggie’s case, if a connection between his murder and the Los Angeles Police Department could be proven, the price would be his life-time earning potential. That number is more than a billion dollars.  That type of money would not just bankrupt the department; it would bankrupt the City of Los Angeles.  

ATM: As there are a substantial amount of films that handle this same information, how do you feel your film will reshape the previous standard?

BF: We are the only standard. That’s the reality and gravitas of this film. Poole’s work is the only standard. The film is based on the work of Russell Poole, who was the lead detective on the Christopher Wallace case. People have tried to capitalize, monetize, and dishonorably attempt to sell versions of what occurred in the investigation. They have tried to discredit Russell’s work. If anyone goes out, as I did, and does their due diligence on Russell Poole, they will find he was an indefatigable detective. He dotted every “I” and crossed every “T.” The Wallace murder was not “unsolved,” it could not be solved because the price of solving it was too high. That’s a very different thing.

We also must acknowledge that the race of Biggie and Tupac plays a large part in why it remains unsolved. This is not fair, this is not right, but we can’t pretend that it is not true. I’m hoping that if we don’t shy away from these truths and we force people to confront them in the film, we can rewrite the story going forward.

ATM: Tell us your favorite experience while making City of Lies.

BF: I have been very blessed to work with a lot of wonderful actors, but I would say Johnny Depp is inspiring because of his level of artistry. He brings a unique approach and an organic way of acting. Every day with him was very inspiring. This was an experience that moved me deeply. I also had the privilege of working with Sergio Robleto, who was Russell’s supervisor when he was on the force. Sergio was on set with us every day, checking the facts, and giving us the precision and the details so that we were re-enacting it true to form. Sadly Sergio passed away recently, so he never got to see the finished film. There have been so many inspiring people that have participated in the process, including Voletta, Biggie’s mother. Russell’s family was also on set many days. I have met so many fearless people on this journey.

ATM: Describe this quote you once said, “What I have learned first and foremost is to follow your instincts. As a filmmaker, there are no rules as to how to play this game. That is a big problem I think that exists in the education on how to be a filmmaker or how to make movies. Describe this more.

BF: I studied other filmmakers when I started out as a filmmaker. One story stuck with me about Michael Bay and the film Bad Boys. He was a young filmmaker at the time and he was doing certain things on the set of Bad Boys. A lot of the crew members were challenging and questioning him. They thought he did not know what he was doing. Clearly the fact that I can say his name and you know who he is, and the name of that movie and you’ve heard of it, means he knew something they didn’t.  My interpretation of this is to follow your gut. There will always be people that don’t believe in you, maybe even some that want you to fail. It’s part of life. But you can’t listen to them. I look at everyone serving on the crew as a filmmaker. This is the way I work.  Sometimes everyone thinks they can do your job and do it better. But you have to know that if that were true, then they would be doing it. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what ends up on screen. And your job as the director is to protect that with every ounce of your being.

I always say, “I work for the movie” and not for an individual. Some filmmakers are self-taught. Every one of them does it their own way. I had to stick with my gut, instincts, and knowledge. I had to ignore people who told me to “do it like this.” This was a very challenging thing to do at a young age. Stories such as Michael and other experiences led me to this point. There are no rules.

ATM: Some people contemplate going to film school and not going. Also, look at notable celebrities in the film industry and decide to pursue their career through experience.

BF: There is no substitution for experience and going out into the world. There is no path that is right or wrong for any individual. Some may go to film school and not learn what it feels like to be on set, but they will grow and mature emotionally. Something I learned once I got older was that filmmaking is about maturation. It is so much about your relationship with yourself and how it translates into your work. This is not something I fully comprehended.

ATM: Wow. Interesting.

BF: I will never forget the decade of pain I went through making my first film. The years leading up to it, all the hard work and blood and sweat it took me to finally get that first opportunity were more important than I realized. I had thought I was ready 10 years before then. But once I finally got on set and I looked at all the craziness, I said, “Ok, this is what those years were about.” I needed to grow, learn, mature, and evolve personally and professionally to be ready for that moment. This is not something I understood. This is not about being in film school or being on set. It is about life.

ATM: What is your favorite Biggie and Tupac song?

BF: For Pac it’s “Hit Em Up.” The anger, pain, and the energy are all things I like. Every time I hear “Hit Em Up,” it just grabs you by the throat and does not let you go. I am a very passionate person. I also like “Dear Mama.” It is the softer side of Pac. That is what I love about him. His duality.

ATM: (Chuckles)

BF: For Biggie, it’s “Warning.” The way he comes in on the track and how the beat goes off. How cinematic it is! You just feel it! You see Biggie in bed, waking up, its very visual storytelling. He comes into the first bars like a Mike Tyson knockout punch. These tracks, these creations, by these two men are timeless things you can listen to over and over.

Furman implements his own style in City of Lies. He takes his knowledge and experience and pours life into this film, dramatizing a story about two hip-hop legends that continues on in infamy. City of Lies hits theaters September 7, 2018.

Follow Furman on his latest trends and moves on Instagram, @bradfurman

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