June 28, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

After John Singleton’s well-documented battle for creative control over last summer’s remake of ”Shaft,” the 31-year old writer/director tells EW.com that he’s happy to return to what he calls a more ”personal” style of filmmaking with his new feature ”Baby Boy” (in theaters). Indeed, everything from the drama’s crime-infested neighborhoods to the desperate, streetwise characters recall the semi-autobiographical films Singleton has been known for since his 1991 breakthrough ”Boyz N the Hood,” which examined life on the rough streets of south central L.A. where he was raised. Like ”Boyz,” which launched the film careers of Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ice T, ”Boy” features such promising fresh faces as Taraji Hensen and model-turned-musician Tyrese — along with a memorable performance as a salacious ex-con by rapper Snoop Dogg.

Why did Singleton go back to the ‘hood? Here he talks about what went wrong with ”Shaft” and why ”Baby Boy” is a truly independent film.

You wrote and directed ”Shaft” just like you did your other films. So why did you clash with producer Scott Rudin over what should make the final cut?
I was like, ”This is my damn movie. If it turns out to be square, I’m going to get blamed. I’m not taking any of your f—ing suggestions.” I knew that if the movie was a flop, I would get blamed.

The movie grossed $70.3 million. Did your refusal to follow Rudin’s wishes help make it a success?
Yes, I stood my ground. I think the commerciality of the film can be attributed to that. I kept things in the film that I thought [Samuel L. Jackson as] Shaft should say, like, ”It’s my duty to please my booty.” They didn’t want none of that stuff at first, but they used it to market the film in the end. I’m mean, s—, I’m an Oscar-nominated director, you think I’m not going to do what I want to do in my own movie?

What makes ”Baby Boy” different from ”Shaft”?
It’s a smaller film, but it’s basically a purer form of filmmaking. It’s more along the lines of the way films used to be made, where a filmmaker had a vision and that vision was implemented throughout the picture. And that’s what I love to do.

You’ve said ”Baby Boy” is a companion piece to ”Boyz.” Was it also inspired by your experiences growing up?
The idea for ”Baby Boy” came from me sitting around in the Crenshaw Mall, in South Central L.A., watching these cats. They walk in with no shirts on. They’re, like, 20 years old. They’re flirting with teenage girls one minute, and the next some other guys come into the mall and there’s a fight. I thought, I want to write about one of these cats. What’s he doing with his life, just wandering around aimlessly? Basically all of [the hero’s] actions are defined by his fear of dying. He has this ”I don’t give a f—” attitude ’cause that allows him the freedom of not realizing he’s afraid.

Except for Ving Rhames and Snoop Dogg, none of the actors have feature-film experience. Why?
I get that fresh energy from new actors. Experienced actors sometimes just go through the motions. They’re just doing it for the check. They forget the excitement of, ”Wow, I can’t believe I’m doing this!”

What about Tyrese made you see him as Jody, the main character?
I looked for Jody for two years. I needed somebody who could play this edgy character, but you wouldn’t hate him. You have to be able to forgive him for all the stuff he’s doing. Tyrese to me was basically this movie star that hadn’t made a movie yet. He had this light on him, you know what I mean?

Your films examine aspects of American life — poverty and racial tension — that mainstream movies often avoid. Yet they are usually financially successful. Why?
It’s very difficult to make films from a personal standpoint. Everyone in Hollywood seems to think you have to make films FOR Hollywood. I’ve never thought, ”What do the studios want me to make?” If I did that, I wouldn’t have a career. Instead, I think, ”What do I want to do; what do I want to see?” I grew up in the ‘hood, so I came at it from a whole other perspective.

Read why ”Baby Boy” star Tyrese made EW’s It List.

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