Andrea Berloff '95
Author of Oscar-Nominated Screenplay "Straight Outta Compton"
By Oliver Bundy ‘07
Earlier this year on January 15, Andrea Berloff, screenwriter of the 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, was awake at 5:30 a.m., sitting in bed with her son. The reason for Berloff’s early rise was to watch the 2016 Academy Award nominations announced. It turned out to be worth getting up so early because when the Best Original Screenplay category came up, Berloff was among the nominees. She previously “thought that maybe the movie had a shot [for Best Picture],” she said, “and did not expect anything for [herself] but was pleasantly surprised.”
Straight Outta Compton, the true story of the influential Los Angeles rap group N.W.A., whose members included Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E, was a project long in gestation and almost didn’t get made. The film was produced by Universal but was originated at New Line Cinema in 2010. Berloff credits her ambitious take on the project as what won her the job scripting it: “Most of the other writers went in and pitched it as a pretty straight ahead musical biopic,” she said, “where I went in and said, ‘This is a big event movie about America. It’s about racism and police abuse and First Amendment rights and all these big giant themes…the music is there to support all those ideas but ultimately it’s not just a musical biopic.’ When the executives heard that, and in particular Ice Cube heard that, he thought, ‘Well, I want the big movie, not the smaller movie.’”
Berloff worked on the film for 3 ½ years until the project died. “There seemed to be no opportunity to get it made which was pretty heartbreaking,” she says. Six months after the project was dropped however, Universal’s CEO “took a leap of faith,” and decided to produce the film despite the financial prospects not being perfect.
Released on August 14, 2015, the film earned $60 million on its opening weekend. According to Boxofficemojo.com, the worldwide gross eventually reached over $200 million. The media always seems surprised when a “black movie” performs well at the box office but Berloff hopes that Straight Outta Compton’s success, along with Creed’s, permanently changes that perception. Berloff thinks, “People will have a hard time having that argument now” but believes “the question is: Can a movie be successful if you don’t put marketing dollars behind it? That’s been a bigger issue rather than the movies themselves.”
Berloff attributes part of the film’s success to its unfortunate contemporary relevance. Set in the late 80s and early 90s, Straight Outta Compton depicts the rap group constantly being harassed by police officers, especially the LAPD, and the film even stages a recreation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. When Berloff was hired to write the film, it was several years before Ferguson or the Black Lives Matter movement shone a spotlight on police brutality in African-American communities. She notes the film was released nearly a year after Ferguson and says the audience used it as a way to “process what happens in America.” She believes, “The movie was [a] conversation point for a lot of people,” and that increased its popularity.
Growing up in Framingham, Massachusetts, Berloff began her journey to being an Oscar-nominated screenwriter at Cornell as a theatre major studying Shakespeare and the Greek classics. She chose Cornell specifically because its theater program offered a BA, not a BFA; she wanted to have the opportunity to take a wide range of classes in various subjects. Although she never took a film class, she believes her theatre studies ingrained in her the structure of storytelling that would inform her professional screenwriting work. Berloff particularly believes the directing class she took under Professor David Feldshuh taught her skills she still uses today. Cornell was also important because it’s where she met her future husband, director/writer Drew Filus.
After graduating, Berloff headed to New York City to act but fell out of love with it three years into her career. After relocating to L.A., she continued to act but grew tired of waiting for call backs. Her husband suggested she exercise her creativity in some way every day, and that’s when she hit upon writing. Berloff says she spent 45 minutes before work just writing stories. “The idea was just write and see what that feels like. And I liked it a lot…and then I decided, ‘Well, I’m in L.A., I guess I should write a screenplay because that’s what you do here.’” Her friends responded positively to her first screenplay attempt so she dug deep and tried even harder on the second one, which she ultimately sold in 2003. “I’m very aware of how unusual that is and how lucky I am that that was my path,” she says. “I’ve been working steadily since.” In 2006, she received a screenwriting credit for the Oliver Stone film World Trade Center.
Although writers are notorious for procrastinating, Berloff notes, “The schedule is pretty punishing when you sell a script.” So there’s little time to slack off. As for process, Berloff is very methodical and writes five pages per day, but if she doesn’t hit that goal, she’ll write more the next day to make it up. “I get up every day and work hard every day, and I think that will be the key to my process forever. There’s no way around it. Whether you’re feeling it or not you got to work every day, that’s it, that’s the secret…you just grind it out…whether or not you’re tired, it doesn’t matter, you got to do it. I believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.” She also believes the “biggest fix for writer’s block is a mortgage.”
Berloff attended the Academy Awards ceremony, held on February 28, and brought along her husband and parents as guests. The Best Original Screenplay Oscar ultimately was awarded to Spotlight, but Berloff wasn’t fazed by the loss. According to her, the best part of the Oscars experience, besides seeing Lady Gaga and the Weeknd perform at the ceremony, was getting to know her fellow nominees because “writing is such a solitary experience.”
Berloff attended multiple pre-Oscars events with the other writing nominees in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. “I really feel like we went on this strange little journey together and got to know each other in a really nice way,” she says. She was particularly happy when Charles Randolph won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Big Short.
Berloff remains as busy as ever with several writing projects, including an upcoming summer action movie called Sleepless Night, starring Jamie Foxx and Michelle Monaghan. She’s also penning a movie for Margot Robbie about a woman who for a time was the biggest bookie in the world.
Berloff doesn’t believe there’s a grand mystery to screenwriting. Her advice to aspiring screenwriters is to “write every day and develop your voice. Don’t worry about all the gazillion books of advice out there, don’t believe in any of them. You have to believe in yourself, believe you have something interesting to say, and believe you can really add something specific and unique to the language of film.”
As for favorite movie of all time, Berloff picks Raging Bull which she calls a “masterpiece.”