February 26, 2021

Billie Woodruff: Making The Cut

Ambassador Digital Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Musa Jackson chats with the handsome brilliant director BILLE WOODRUFF. He takes us on his amazing journey from summers on a farm in Richmond, Virginia to interning then producing at B.E.T. Directing some of the most iconic music videos that helped shape the culture for artists such as JOE, NELLY, TLC, MARY J. BLIGE, FAT JOE, BLACKSTREET, FOXY BROWN, BRIAN MCKNIGHT, OUTKAST, NEXT, DRU HILL, CELINE DION, BABYFACE and TONI BRAXTON. His feature film directing debut HONEY with JESSICA ALBA and making the hit film BEAUTY SHOP with QUEEN LATIFAH to directing some of TVs hottest shows LEE DANIEL’S EMPIRE, STAR and currently BLACK LIGHTNING.

Billie Woodruff takes us on his amazing journey from interning to some of the most iconic music videos that helped shape the culture for artists

The Interview

MUSA What was it like growing up in Richmond, Virginia?
BILLIE It was like a storybook. We used to go skinny dipping off the rocks in the James River. Play cowboys and Indians in the woods. Play baseball in the streets. Go on adventures until the street lights came on then you had to be home. Didn’t worry about anything bad happening to us. My mother grew up on a farm so I spent summers on the farm driving tractor trailers, collecting eggs out of the chicken coop. ( laughs) My mother worked in the school system so she made sure I was always in accelerated programs. I went to Open High School. It was a school for the arts. Except it was different because you sign up for classes and you have a schedule a lot like you have in college. There was a lot of punk rock music, dance, hip hop influences there. So I was able to flex my creative muscles very early on in that environment.
MUSA You went to the University of Maryland. What was college life like?
BILLIE ( laughs) I had been in different bands. So I was edgy. I loved Prince, wore my hair long, had spikes, wore eyeliner. It was culture shock because everyone was so conservative. They looked at me like I was an alien and I wasn’t used to that because I had all kinds of friends. Coming from Richmond going further up north I thought people would been more hip or evolved. I remember the first day I was in the lunch room. The University of Maryland is a really big school. So I get my food and sit down and everyone at this two long table gets up and moves. I was like okay then fuck y’all. ( laughs) And then the prettiest girl in the whole place sat beside me. We became friends. But over time everyone started thinking I was cool. Then I had a great time. I grew up there being in D.C. I kept changing my major. I loved writing, music and film. So I started writing for the college newspaper called The Black Explosion.
MUSA How did get an internship at B.E.T.?
BILLIE My editor at the Black Explosion newspaper was like they have internships at B.E.T. I’m going to try and get one. Are you interested in checking it out? I was like hell yeah. So we went to get the internship. And I remember they weren’t very large at the time. They were leasing space out of WDCH Channel 20. And I could see into the bull pen where all the producers were. And there was this woman Jamie Brown and I could hear her. I could hear she was setting something up with Andre Simone. I knew that was Prince’s bass player from his original group. I could feel Jamie’s energy and I knew I had to intern for her. So I was sent to Jamie and we interviewed. I thought I did very well but heard nothing. There are times in our lives when we know we have to be apart of something. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, lawyer or politician. I wanted to be creative and in the arts. I knew this was my way in. So I made up some desperate story. So she calls me in and says to me, “You can start but I know you made that story up.” I started working for her and that opened all these doors for me. I was interning at BET. I was working at all these departments. I was very lucky because they were very small at the time. So I was doing on camera, doing camera work, working in the sports department, news department, doing promo. Basically everything. It was great. I was in school but at the same time this was my school. I was blessed. I was there at that time and was able to take advantage of it. I ended up getting hired there as a P.A. and worked my way up.

I was at LaFace Records, in charge of music videos and artist development.

I knew what I doing was going to pay off but everyone around me didn’t

MUSA How did you transition from being a PA at BET to directing music videos?
BILLIE Those times of trying to make ends meet and moving out of places. ( laughs) Moving out because I can’t pay the rent. All those things were happening at that time but I was still creatively charged. I realized that I wasn’t making enough money. There was a lot pressure from my family and people who knew me. They were like why are you going there. You’re a scholar you should be getting paid far more. There was also a period of not getting paid to get on staff. I knew what I doing was going to pay off but everyone around me didn’t. I knew I needed more income and my skill set of interviewing people and putting packages together for the show “This Week In Black Entertainment” which was like an Entertainment Tonight type of show. It was wonderful because I would do things on Dance Theater of Harlem, Sammy Davis Jr. , Tina Turner then it would be Sade. To have this kind of access so young and be a part of these things. I was working with artists, editing their videos, putting it all together. When record labels would come out with EPKs for all the artists when new projects come out. I could do that on my own. I started a company to do that so I could begin to branch out on my own. I made a lot contacts in the music industry. I interned at a lot of shows. I was the cool kid when everyone came in I’d take care of them I stayed in touch. I was doing this thing for the group Blaze but I needed to go London to do this footage of them. I got my money up go to NY I did some footage of them in NY. My connecting flight to London was cancelled. I didn’t have a place to stay but Ed Eckstein, he managed Tone Tone Tone and Vanessa Williams. Ed offered for me to stay at his place what is now the Meat Packing District. I had to go London but I also had to be back at BET. He was like “What did you want to do with your career?” I said I really want to direct and do more things on my own and explore that. He was like then you need to take the flight. When I got there Blaze was like you should direct our video. I had studied and everything and been behind the scenes on the sets of music videos but I didn’t have a whole company together to do a video. I went out to L.A. to Motown. I knew all those people because they essentially saw me grow up. I went to the meeting Jheryl Busby was the head of Motown back then. We were in the conference room and they were like you’ll get us the B2 masters. I didn’t know what that was because we weren’t using that format at BET. I’m writing all these notes down thinking what the fuck is that. So while we were in the meeting I kindly excused myself and I went into Tracey Jordan office who I knew was head of music video then. I told her assistant that her boss wanted her to give me all the budget and breakdown for the last four videos. ( laughs) I was like you can just leave them in my bag. I went back in the meeting. I knew I couldn’t say I didn’t know how to do all the business parts of it. My good friend and former college roommate was a mechanical engineer major and also very creative. I got him to help me pour through all those documents and we figured out how to do it. Put something together, got the company in place, did the video for a song called “We All Must Live Together”. I had an amazing experience and the video turned out great. I started doing more videos from there.

“Unbreak My Heart” is one of my favorite music videos I directed. -Billie Woodrow

MUSA You’ve worked with so many artists and various styles. From Joe, Blackstreet, Nelly, Enrique Inglesias to Britney Spears. But the “Unbreak My Heart” video with Toni Braxton was just so powerful and visually stunning. Tell us how what that was like and the inspiration behind it?
BILLIE “Unbreak My Heart” is one of my favorite music videos I directed. Toni and I were friends. We had the whole DMV connection. We met when I was still at BET and she was coming out with her first song “Love Shouldda Brought You Home” from the Boomerang Soundtrack. And we hit it off immediately and stayed in touch. I was at LaFace Records, in charge of music videos and artist development. I did a video Tony Rich Project “Nobody Knows” which blew me up on a bigger scale. After that everybody wanted me to do their videos which was great. Toni and I had done “Making Me High” But “Unbreak My Heart” was a totally different kind of song. I was inspired partially by A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I always loved that movie as a kid. I thought it was the perfect way to show what was conveyed in the song instead of the typical you cheated on me video. ( laughs) I wanted it timeless and epic like the song because it was a big power ballad. I wrote the concept. Toni loved it. I had more things in it. She made me cut out things. ( laughs) She would say you trying to make a movie this isn’t a movie. ( laughs) The white dress was Gucci which we altered, with the cut out and upto the neck. Tom Ford who designed the dress told me later he loved the dress. I only say that because every part of the video we conceptualized. I wanted Toni’s hair like A Star is Born with the curly Afro. Believe it or not but back then it was radical. Changing her hairstyles wasn’t done in a video. There were all of these unspoken rules we were breaking with this video. Toni trusted me. She let me play and create. She was my muse. It was an amazing experience. Toni and I were over the moon with it. I took the video into the record label and the reaction was mediocre at best. L.A. Reid didn’t like it. But to his credit he allowed Toni and I to convince him that we should release it and that it was a good video. Then had to resent it to Clive Davis because LaFace is under Arista. He’s like, “What what is this”? “Why is she with this orchestra?” “It’s horrible.” Then we take it MTV weekly video review meetings and they are like, “We love you. And of course we love Toni but this is nothing like Making Me High. Basically they didn’t think it was cool. I said I think you’re wrong and you’re underestimating her audience and their capacity for thinking they need everything to be the same. I’m stressing out. We spent so much money ( laughs) I said, “Since you love me and Toni could put it in rotation for a week. Let’s just see what happens.” They did. And the rest is history. People loved it. I tell that story because these are people that know what they’re doing. If I did not fight for that video it would not have seen the light of day.
MUSA So you make your feature film debut with Honey starring Jessica Alba. Was feature films always the next thing for you?
BILLIE I had wanted to do movies first. The late great Andre Hurrell, who I knew really well at his time at Uptown Records and my time at BET supporting his artists hit me with the script. That’s how I became involved with Honey.
MUSA Tell us about Queen Latifah and Beauty Shop?
BILLIE I knew Queen Latifah for a very long time. We had only worked together with me interviewing her at BET. I had to convince Latifah that I was going to be able to deal with all of these personalities. She had only seen me out socially over the years as a nice guy. But it was so much fun. She will tell you it was the most fun set she ever worked on. It was like a family. We had a great time making that movie. We shot on film which you don’t get to do as much any more. That was the first comedy to be shot in anamorphic. She really trusted me to tell the story and make it multicultural, funny with depth and heart.

I’ve always looked at directing as directing. Since I started off doing one thing then learned so many different kinds of things.

MUSA You’ve directed a lot of TV. Lee Daniels Empire and Star. Currently the Executive Producer of Black Lightning and directed a bunch of episodes. How is TV different from what he other two mediums?
BILLIE I’ve always looked at directing as directing. Since I started off doing one thing then learned so many different kinds of things. From doing EPKs to music videos to commercials. I love to direct. I love the challenge. At BET I used direct documentaries like The Making of Malcom X. The movie that Spike Lee did. I love creating, although the mediums are different in a lot of ways. I like TV because it’s fast and there are all these kinds of challenges. It’s like a puzzle you have to fix. It’s a certain energy to it. I enjoy that. But if you ask me what I really am at heart I’m a feature director because that really brings together all of my talents. So doing television creating a pilot that would be the same to me as doing a feature film. Because you’re doing it from the beginning and setting the tone for everything to follow. Salim and Mara Brock Akil gave me my first opportunity to direct which was on The Game. They’ve given so many people their first chances in different ways. Now that I’ve come back and worked on this season with them. I got the chance to direct the new spinoff from Black Lightning episode called Pain Killer.

MUSA What advice would you give to budding filmmaker.
BILLIE There are so many ways with all the new media for people to do things. This guy put a trailer together of an idea for a movie based on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But he made it a drama called it Bel Air now Will Smith company is involved with him and NBC peacock to make it a series. It’s based on him just doing a trailer that he put online. My point is he did this on his own used his resources and put it out there. Same way music artists are getting deals because they are online getting a presence and getting it out there to people. I would say this is the era of getting together with your peoples make a plan, put things together and put it out there for people to see. Try to get an audience, try to get a following. And get people to see what you do. It gives you something to show people. Because when you do meet people and you find out there’s something they’re looking for. You have something to submit. You have a reel. But also get into the multiple programs they have. Like Ryan Murphy has one. Warner Brothers has one. A bunch of studios has these programs where you get to go in and shadow directors and go through the process of working on a show. And then maybe you can get placed. And one day you might get to direct an episode.

ATL TEAM: Photographer: @james_l_hicks2photography Stylist: @vscottmuz Grooming: Essie Cha BTS @bazzthemodel Bille Woodruff wearing all Black Designers Look 1: Obsidian silk, nylon motorcycle jacket with fur collar. Grosgrain tuxedo pants by @andrewnowell_menswear Look 2: Leatheresque Topover Tee, Menswear Patchpants by APOTTS @apottscollection Look 3: Cream Tunic, Black slouchpant @apottscollection Black Beaver felt hat: @otis_damon Look 4: Patchwork Top @apottscollection Dusty Blue velour flip cap @otis_damon Look 5: Fitted Tuck Printed Top, Faux Leather joggers by @steviethedesigner Look 6: Black cotton morph over Cutout Top and loose pant @eppersonstudios Look 7: Cream Cotton gauze One sleeve poncho over cotton tunic and headwrap @eppersonstudios NY TEAM: Founder & Editor In Chief: Musa Jackson @iammusajackson Creative Director: Paul Morejon Paulmorejon


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