Charles Stone III may be most easily identified as the man behind Budweiser’s famous “Whassup?” commercials, but that part of his career was just a step on his route to becoming a feature director. In a recent Dallas interview to promote the release of “Drumline,” an energetic Fox 2000 Pictures release about a talented but rebellious youth (Nick Cannon) who becomes a member of the drum line in an Atlanta college marching band, Stone outlined the chronology of his recent work.
“I got ‘Paid in Full’ [his first film, released earlier this fall] based on a short film that the commercial campaign came from,” he explained. “I did a two-minute short called ‘True,’ which is what the whole Budweiser commercial campaign is based on. Before Budweiser had ever seen it, Dimension Films had seen it, and knew of the music video work that I’d been doing eight years before that. So they offered ‘Paid in Full’ to me [to direct]. That’s how it happened. That’s why I did a short film–to create a calling card for myself, to get into that world. And it ended up doing very well for me. We went into pre-production [on ‘Paid in Full’] in the fall of 1999, and while I was in pre-production, Anheuser Busch contacted me about turning the short film into a campaign. So while I was shooting ‘Paid in Full,’ I had a couple of breaks and shot the Budweiser ad.”
After “Paid in Full” went into production during the fall and winter of 2000, Stone began looking for his next project, and by the summer of 2001 had chosen “Drumline,” which he took into pre-production in fall, 2001. He was immediately attracted by the unusual culture portrayed in the script and the opportunities it offered him as director. “They do that [offer scholarships to players],” he explained, “yes they do. And they do recruit. That’s what’s fascinating about that whole world, and that’s what made it even more enticing for me to direct this film–because I really wanted to make a sports movie, a big sort of action sports movie, but with battling marching bands. And the reality of that culture down south, it really feels that way. They have like a boot camp for three weeks in August before school starts, getting up at 4:30, 5:30 in the morning, training; they spend the whole day together. It’s really full-on, and they take it very seriously. And the students are looked upon as being stars if you’re in the marching band. The stereotype, I think, is that marching band kids are musical geeks or whatever, but that’s not the case down south, especially if you’re part of the percussion section. They’re known as the rogues, the rebellious group who never listen to authority and all that. We had a number of music directors at schools down south tell me that. The film could easily have been about the percussion section–it could have been about this rag-tag group of guys who are all very rebellious…[but] instead of that, we funneled it into one character who thought he was going to come down there and prove to the world that he’s the greatest drummer, as opposed to a team player.”
Casting the picture proved difficult. Originally Stone had hoped to find accomplished drummers who could also handle the acting chores, but open auditions across the country failed to find them. And then Cannon, star of a series on the Nickelodeon Network, appeared. “Nick really came burning for the role,” Stone recalled, “his first dramatic role. And he’s like, ‘Whatever I need to do, whatever it takes, I’ll do it. I really believe in this role.’ He was just a hundred percent committed. And he had no training in drumming, really. He played drums when he was a kid, but not enough to cover himself. So he had to learn all over again.” Chosen to play opposite Cannon as the strict, somewhat old-fashioned but utterly principled band director was Orlando Jones–whose casting Stone called “a happy accident…I was kind of ambivalent about it at first, [but] we really hit it off. And Orlando had a really good understanding of that culture–he grew up in North Carolina–and he just ended up being really right.”
“Drumline” does have to take some liberties for dramatic effect, of course. Stone noted that the climactic showdown between rival percussion sections in the battle of the bands has been slimmed down. “Typically drum cadences go on for three to four minutes apiece, and it was quite a daunting task for the drummers to shorten their cadences down to like less than a minute. And originally there are three cadences per band, so instead of six it’s now only four–they go two and two.” But the spirit of the picture is true to the phenomenon. “Being a drummer myself since I was eight…I just love drums,” Stone said. “So I was really inspired every time they would perform. I would tell them how grateful and honored I was to be able to capture it.”