Fifteen years ago, a 24-year-old screenwriter-director named Theodore Witcher created one of the definitive romantic dramas of the 1990s, Love Jones. Laying Chicago's hip spoken-word set against a backdrop of rain-soaked scenery and a tumultuous courtship, the story of characters Nina Moseley and Darius Lovehall, played by Nia Long and Larenz Tate, became legendary.
Unlike the gritty black films opening the 1990s like 1991's Boyz n the Hood and 1993's Menace II Society, 1997's Love Jones depicted an artistic niche of African-American life. Instead of having his characters struggle with "the man," Witcher wanted them to wrestle with themselves and their careers, as humanistic beings trying to get over their personal shortcomings. In hindsight, the first-time director created a mold from which many black romantic dramas draw and presented an idea of love that still lingers, like America's undying affection for Cliff and Clair Huxtable.
The Root tracked down Witcher on the anniversary of his first and last film to find out what it took to create Love Jones and where he's been all of these years.
The Root: Why did you make Love Jones as such an atypical love story?
Theodore Witcher: I wanted to do something that was closer to my dating experience — there was a lot of game playing. Also, I was a part of a similar world in Chicago in the early '90s and thought it was an interesting backdrop on which to paint this young romantic story.
The movie's look came through a confluence of ideas by myself and my team, and the month we shot was the wettest Chicago had seen in years. Rain was written into the script, but then every other day was raining so, out of my control, the movie ended up looking like Seven.
TR: Did the final scene where Nina and Darius reunite go according to plan?
TW: The last scene was supposed to be raining! The original version took place outside of the club. Nina's standing in the downpour waiting for Darius and they have their last moment together.
We tested the movie, and most of the women in the audience didn't believe a black woman would stand in the rain with her hair uncovered. This mortified me because we're going for the big finish and you're absorbed in this detail of whether her hair would get messed up? The studio [New Line Cinema] said, "Reshoot," and we shot the scene under an L train track. I wanted to present a woman protagonist without vanity, which I thought would be refreshing, but I guess I failed.
TR: And you don't like one of the film's most romantic scenes?
TW: The Buckingham Fountain scene bothers me to this day. When we got there to shoot, it was fogged in. You couldn't see five feet in front of you. Then we rescheduled it and it was foggy again, and the studio wouldn't give me any more money to reshoot.
It's not how I wanted it to look. I guess people like it because it has an ethereal glow — the fog and the fountain are backlit — but I hate it, and that's the thing that people like the most. Go figure.
TR: How did you cast Nia Long and Larenz Tate?
TW: I'd originally written the film with Jada Pinkett in mind, and she liked it but passed. I met Nia Long through executive Helena Echegoyen, who recommended her. The studio was keen on Larenz because he'd done Menace II Society, but he didn't want to work with a first-time director, which I was, and I thought he was O-Dog [his character in Menace], which was not what I wrote.
He liked the script, and once I realized he wasn't O-Dog, the only question was, could he act enough to be Darius Lovehall? Then I screen-tested he and Nia together and showed the tape to my female friends, and they all said the couple had a spark.
TR: What was your experience as a first-time director?
TW: The first day, my line producer and I were riding to set and he said, "Are you ready to have 100,000 volts wired to your testicles?" Turns out directing is more like having 100,000 paper cuts slowly bleed you to death. You're never prepared to be a first-time director, particularly on an aggressive schedule of 35 days. Maybe this changes as you go on — I only directed one movie — but you never feel like you get out in front of the train, and by the end, the train was running over me.
TR: Is that why you seemed to disappear after Love Jones?
TW: No. I intended to have a long list of credits, but I couldn't get another movie. There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don't get to do that.
Some things came my way that I passed on, and I have no regrets. I continue my career as a screenwriter and I briefly directed videos — I was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award for City High's "What Would You Do?" — and commercials, but I didn't like them. Now I'm working on an adaptation of Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris. We'll see what happens.
Hillary Crosley is a contributor to The Root.