Boogie director Eddie Huang explains how casting Pop Smoke was a last minute 'blessing'
While the Brooklyn rapper was a late addition to the film, his addition to it had a huge impact on Huang's directorial debut.
When production began on Boogie, Eddie Huang's directorial debut about a Chinese-Taiwanese American high school basketball star named Alfred 'Boogie' Chin, who's trying to overcome unfortunate circumstances at home and make it to the NBA, Pop Smoke wasn't the rapper who first signed on to play Boogie's rival Monk.
"Dave East was cast for the role," Huang reveals to EW. "We had incredibly shot a great scene with Dave East. Dave East went to Vegas, ended up in a threesome, and ended up getting hit with a champagne bottle, and there was no wrongdoing on his part, but it was all over the news."
The filmmaker remembers them shooting with East on a Friday, but then "he got pulled from the film the following Wednesday and then Monk, that character was up Monday. So we had four days to find somebody."
Shooting in New York City in the first half of 2019, Pop Smoke's breakout song "Welcome to the Party" was inescapable. Right as he was rushing to fill the role, Huang was made aware of a happy coincidence: "It was actually [rapper] Despot who plays the assistant coach in the film that mentioned, 'You know, Pop, play basketball.' I was like, 'What?' He's like, 'Yeah. Pop was like a top recruit in high school.' I was like, 'Get out of here.'"
Huang was already friendly with the young rapper's manager Steven Victor, and was able to quickly get the screenplay over to his camp. "Pop read the script, loved it, thought it was hilarious. And he shows up at my crib with nine people. He'd just come from Connecticut, just done a show, rolled up to the crib and we all just played basketball. We played basketball, put them on tape," recalls the director. "I knew from the first five minutes, I was like, this is him. It's him. This is a blessing. Like, Dave East, I love you, but it's Pop."
Huang continues to paint the picture of how they secured the Brooklyn Drill music innovator, saying "Our executive Michelle Momplaisir was like sitting on the basketball court with her laptop, working out the deal, calling [former Focus Features President] Robert Walak like, 'Can we make this deal? Make this deal. We got to shoot him in 12 hours.' From the minute he signed, he had a 12-hour turnaround to the first day of shooting. Never acted in his life."
That didn't matter to Huang though, who felt an instant understanding develop between him and the rapper. "With Pop, I was the most liberal. With Pop, I really felt a trust between us. Pop had scripted lines, and then he would just come off to the side and we'd talk and I'd throw him back in and he would improv and he would do things. He was a real joy to direct and we had a lot of chemistry. Some of the audio, like I just played back listening to, of our days was just hilarious. It's like a quarterback and a receiver that had been playing together for 10 years."
The addition of Pop Smoke brought about changes in the direction of the film too —particularly with the music it uses, including two new songs by him.
"Once Pop became part of the film, the intention of this was that this would be a Brooklyn Drill film," notes Huang. "Me and my best friend, Raf [Martinez], who's the executive producer. We were like, 'Yo, I know we came in wanting to make a golden era hip hop film, but something's happening in New York. And we will embrace this.' And I think that was one of the best things we did was that we fully embraced Pop and the sound of New York."
While Pop Smoke was able to see the film through to the end of production, the rapper was tragically shot and killed during a home invasion of his rental in Los Angeles shortly after in Feb. 2020. The film Boogie is dedicated to him.
"We only had so much time with him, but he left a really big impression on all of us," Huang solemnly states. "In a lot of ways, this was a film that I made for immigrants in America to see themselves, and Pop is a child of immigrants, Panamanian and Jamaican. He relates more to the Panamanian side. But once the film was finished, in a lot of ways, I definitely feel like we're doing it for him."
"We think about him all the time, and it's affected everyone," adds the filmmaker. "And I think that we've been carrying this through post. We got to do right by him, and all the people that him, and this movie represent."
Boogie is now playing in theaters.