One room, two pianos, three men: It all came down to that.
After 15 years of researching, writing and wrangling enough money to finance his dream project, director Taylor Hackford knew that this was the moment -- an extremely tense moment in spring 2003 -- that could make or break "Ray," his $30 million biopic on the turbulent life and beautiful music of Ray Charles. The 59-year-old Hollywood veteran had already chosen Jamie Foxx, the comic-turned-actor who had gone to college on a piano scholarship, to play the American icon. Now it was time for the icon himself to give his blessing -- or not -- to an actor whose most popular movie just may be "Booty Call."
"Believe me, Ray's not easy," Hackford says in a suite in Georgetown's Ritz-Carlton hotel. "If he wanted to stop this project at any moment, he could have."
A tall, handsome man with a windswept gray mane and the beard to match, Hackford takes a dramatic sip of water and smiles. "Ray really tested Jamie. Sometimes unpleasantly. Ray had Jamie sit down at one of the pianos and said, 'Let's play a little bit.' So Ray played a little funk and Jamie matched that. Ray played a little blues; Jamie matched that. I mean, Jamie took the bait.
"All of sudden, Ray breaks into Thelonious Monk," Hackford says with a laugh. "There's no rhyme or reason to Thelonious Monk. People thought Monk was mad. Jamie's background wasn't jazz; all Ray cared about was jazz. So Jamie's not playing, and Ray's like, 'Come on, man! It's like this!' And Jamie's not getting it. And Ray shouts, 'Come on, man, it's right under your fingers!' "
Hackford sits back in his chair and opens his arms wide. "And then, finally, Jamie got it. He stood his ground. He wasn't humiliated. He stayed with it, and he got Thelonious Monk. And at that moment, Ray stood up and started hugging himself and said: 'That's it. The kid's got it. He's the one.' Jamie grew to about 10 feet tall. He was anointed by the master."
For Hackford, "Ray," which opens nationwide today, is the culmination of a career spent blending music and cinema. Perhaps more than any other Tinseltown stalwart, Hackford understands the enduring power of a pop song. His biggest box-office successes -- 1982's "An Officer and a Gentleman," 1984's "Against All Odds" and 1985's "White Nights" -- were seemingly built around such enduring make-out classics as "Up Where We Belong," "Against All Odds" and "Separate Lives." He also directed the 1987 concert film "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," and he produced 1987's "La Bamba," the Ritchie Valens biopic and the highest-grossing Latino movie of all time.
But although he had one of the greatest American songbooks -- Charles changed music as we knew it by merging R&B, pop, secularized gospel and even country-western -- to work with on "Ray," Hackford faced resistance from major studios.
"Hollywood is not exactly bold and brave when it comes to biopics," he says. "They think biopics should go to television. Black biopics they like even less. No one would finance the movie."
He had proved financially successful with "La Bamba," but the differences in scope and budget were obvious when it came to "Ray." "Ritchie Valens's career was 18 months long," he says. "That film didn't cost very much money. It's about a 17-year-old boy struggling out of the ghetto in California and getting a couple of quick hits and then dying before he could make that legend a reality."
By contrast, "Ray Charles was born in the segregated South, in the Depression, in all that poverty," says Hackford, who first met Charles in 1988 and remained friends with him until the musician's death from liver disease this June at 73. "His poverty was about as low as you could possibly imagine. He didn't wear shoes until he was 7 years old. [But later in his life] he performed for kings and queens, ran a multimillion-dollar corporation, owned his own jet. Presidents invited him to the White House. That is a huge story to tell."
Hackford eventually garnered funding from Phil Anschutz, who owns a stake in, among other things, the Los Angeles Lakers. The $30 million budget -- while hardly lavish by current Hollywood standards -- allowed the director to paint a full portrait of Ray Charles Robinson (he dropped his surname after boxer Sugar Ray Robinson became famous): as a young boy in Albany, Ga., who was raised by a tough but loving mother, who saw his younger brother drown in a wash basin, who was blind from glaucoma by the time he was 7. As a young man traveling by bus to Chicago and Seattle and New Orleans, blowing the roof off the juke joints, sparring with Jim Crow and becoming addicted to heroin along the way.
"I wanted the stink of those clubs," Hackford says of the movie's exceptional "live" scenes. "Before 'American Bandstand,' every city in America had its own dance style. They hadn't been homogenized by television. And I wanted that." (Hackford was a stickler for details, down to the way Charles demanded to be paid for gigs: in dollar bills, so he could count each one and make sure he wasn't being cheated.)
And now the director had the cash to take his time (the movie is 21/2 hours long) and finely detail Charles's path from Atlantic Records in the 1950s -- the true beginning of his musical mastery -- all the way to that day in 1979 when the Georgia legislature, in a groundbreaking display of racial reparations, voted to make his version of "Georgia on My Mind" the state song.
"Biopics have to have a compelling story," says Hackford, who shot the sprawling film in just 60 days. "But if you have the story, then the music can drive the story forward, provide relief after the drama."
He certainly had the music. In fact, Hackford had the original music, including master copies of Charles's earliest work, overseen by Atlantic engineering pioneer Tom Dowd. "These are masterpieces," the director says. "I enhanced them a bit. I wanted to make them vibrant. I wanted the authenticity that comes with creation."
Foxx, who can be heard singing on hip-hop star Kanye West's hit "Slow Jamz," has a fine voice. But "never for an instant" did Hackford consider having anyone besides Ray Charles sing Ray Charles's songs. "Jamie's a good singer," he says, "but is he going to sing as well as Ray Charles? No one sings as well as Ray Charles."
When it came to accurately portraying Charles, lip-syncing wasn't really the big problem. After all, he's one of the most recognizable faces in the world, and convincing audiences that they were watching the real deal and not an impostor was a major hurdle.
So Hackford's first step in helping Foxx become Charles was a logical one: The director asked his star to go blind.
"An actor's greatest weapon are the eyes, the vision into the soul," he says. "But you can't use the eyes in this film." Foxx agreed to wear prosthetics over his eyes. He "hyperventilated, panicked" at first, says Hackford. But temporary blindness was just the beginning of the physical demands: "Ray Charles is totally unique: his movements, his style of speech . . . plus you have to play the piano like Ray does."
Long story short: The 36-year-old Foxx gives a performance that is earning him widespread Oscar buzz. He's constantly in motion as Charles -- the head swivel, the self-hugs and, on top of all that, the herky-jerky spasms of a heroin junkie. "It wasn't an impression," Hackford says. "It wasn't an impersonation. He channeled this guy."
Foxx portrays Charles as a cold, manipulative womanizer -- a man who worshiped his wife, Della Bea Robinson (played by Kerry Washington) but who had numerous affairs, most notably with backup singer and head "Raelette" Margie Hendricks (an explosive Regina King).
Charles was given a Braille copy of the script and had only two objections to it, neither of which involved his infidelities. Hackford originally wrote a scene showing Charles taking up piano grudgingly; Charles, however, was adamant that the minute his younger self heard the instrument being played in a Georgia juke joint, he knew he wanted to do that for the rest of his life. The other correction involved Hendricks, who eventually died of a drug overdose. In an earlier version of the script, Hackford had implied that Charles had shown Hendricks how to shoot heroin. "Ray told me, 'I did heroin for 20 years, but I never turned anyone else onto it,' " Hackford says.
A few months before Charles's death, Hackford put together a rough cut of "Ray." "At that point, he was starting to show signs of being sick," the director says. "We went into someone's office and there was, like, a 1985 television with a little tinny speaker. I put the videotape on and said, 'Ray, this is not the way you should see the movie.' He said, 'Hey, man, just relax.'
"The first thing he wanted to hear was his mama's voice, who I had cast. Talk about pressure. He was like a stone. He just sat there, frown on his face, quiet, not moving. He listened to three scenes, and I'm thinking, 'This is a disaster.' And then he started going, 'That's right. That's the truth.' And finally he said, 'Taylor, I'm really pleased. I'm very happy.' "