In the six months Curtis Hanson lensed the movie 8 Mile, he watched its star, rapper Eminem, foster a natural acting ability, one with an emotional depth only hinted at in his videos.
When the movie opens November 8th, fans will get a glimpse of Marshall Mathers, not his alter egos Eminem or Slim Shady -- and that's the way Hanson wants it.
"He's in every scene," Hanson says. "One cannot hold the screen for a long period of time without conveying some kind of inner truth. I knew going into it that he had experience performing and also adopting a character, Slim Shady. What I was looking for was actually the opposite of that. When you adopt a characterization, that's artificial. You hide behind that. What I needed in this story was the appearance of a complete lack of artifice. I needed the appearance of one more or less exposing himself emotionally. And, so in my getting to know him, I had to assess and then make an educated guess of whether he would be able to do to that and whether he would trust me and the environment I would create enough to do that."
Hanson, who also directed L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, describes the movie as a "leap of faith" for both parties, and he characterizes Eminem as a workaholic, who, when he wasn't filming, was penning lyrics.
In 8 Mile, Eminem stars as Jimmy Smith Jr., a fledgling rapper nicknamed Bunny Rabbit who battles his way through racial and social stereotypes, as well as familial problems, with the help of his MC friend Future (Mekhi Phifer). Kim Basinger plays his troubled mother, while seven-year-old newcomer Chloe Greenfield is his sister, Lily.
It was the social issues that drew Hanson to the 8 Mile project. "I saw, in the original script, an opportunity to deal with themes that I think about and mean a lot to me," he explains, "people -- young people in this case -- trying to figure out how to lead their lives in a society where the traditional sign posts are either not there or barely legible, racial relations in our country, and the way in which art -- in this case hip-hop -- allows and enables people to emotionally connect in a way that they are able to transcend their circumstances. Then, you combine that with Detroit, this city that once promised a future to literally anyone and has gone through times where it's struggling to find its way in the same way that our characters are, and it was an unbelievably potent opportunity."
Hanson intended one scene, featuring Jimmy and his fellow factory workers on break, as a brief history of hip-hop. "It starts out with Miz Korona, who plays the female factory worker," Hanson says. "It's rap as social protest. She's complaining about the circumstances under which they work. The male worker, played by Xzibit, jumps in and it's rap as anger and attack. He spits venom in every direction: He attacks her, he attacks the overweight guy, he attacks the gay guy. It's the ugly, angry form of rap. Then you have Jimmy, played by Marshall, jump in, and he attacks. But he also defends, and he has humor. He takes it to another step with the addition of humor."
Hanson doesn't want movie-goers to pigeonhole 8 Mile as "rap movie," however. "Hip-hop movies usually illustrate the lyrics of certain kinds of hip-hop songs," he says. "You have a lot of guns, you have a lot of drugs and so forth. Our story is about hip-hop fans. They don't live the life that is depicted in hip-hop lyrics, but they identify of the emotion of those lyrics."
Hanson has a good track record of introducing up-and-coming actors to the public -- Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential), Tom Cruise (Losin' It), and Tobey Maguire (Wonder Boys). And he sees this streak continuing with Eminem and 8 Mile.
"It was the challenge working with an actor who had never done it before," Hanson says. "But it was also an extraordinary opportunity, and I feel very excited to be able to collaborate with him on this most auspicious debut."