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‘Snowfall’ Premiere: John Singleton on The Rise of Crack During His Youth and Exposing ‘Terrifying’ CIA Operations

John Singleton's new FX drama "Snowfall" is as much about the Oscar-nominee's 'formative years' as the untold — and illegal — stories surrounding it.

SNOWFALL "Pilot" Season 1, Episode 1 Series Premiere Damson Idris as Franklin

Michael Yarish/FX

In 1983, John Singleton was 15 years old. He was still eight years away from directing his landmark drama, “Boyz n the Hood,” but he was already living a life not far removed from his Oscar-nominated script. It’s a world he’s revisiting in the new FX drama “Snowfall.”

“In college, they said write about what you know,” Singleton said, following the debut of his first TV project as a writer. “These are my formative years.”

Singleton, who said this series “had been germinating for many, many years,” joined co-creator and showrunner Dave Andron, executive producer Thomas Schlamme, and stars Damson Idris, Carter Hudson, and Juan Javier Cardenas for the ATX TV Festival’s opening night screening of “Snowfall” in Austin, Texas.

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Taking place in East Los Angeles during the summer of 1983, “Snowfall” primarily follows Franklin Saint (Idris), a high school graduate who tried college in the San Fernando Valley and quit. Now, Franklin is dealing marijuana for his uncle on the sly and working nights at a convenience store to keep up appearances for his mother.

SNOWFALL "Pilot" Season 1, Episode 1 (Series Premiere, Airs Wednesday, July 5, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Malcolm Mays as Kevin, Damson Idris as Franklin, Isaiah John as Leon

“I went to school for one year in the Valley,” Singleton said, noting the similarity between his life and what the audience saw on screen. “It was the first time I ever went to school without just black kids. It was 1981. It was Tarzana. Most of the kids were Jewish and Japanese at the time.

“It was this thing where kids from the ghetto smoked weed and my friends in high school and junior high did coke — I don’t know if I’m supposed to be saying this,” Singleton said. “But this is before crack, so it was an interesting thing to see how the transition was where that drug was accessible to people in the ‘hood.'”

“Snowfall,” as its tagline clearly states, aims to show “how crack began.” Outside of Franklin’s story, there are connected narratives focusing on a Mexican wrestler trying to earn his place in a crime family and a CIA operative who gets a second chance in the agency via an off-book L.A. operation used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras fighters.

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Hudson plays the operative, Teddy McDonald, and the actor said he had no idea any of this really happened in the ’80s.

“I didn’t know any of it, and when I found out I was terrified,” Hudson said, noting how stories about the CIA running the American drug trade is mostly treated as “fringe conspiracy theories.”

“We should be talking about this every day,” he said. “That the CIA was illegally operating within the United States is shocking and appalling and terrifying.”

SNOWFALL -- "Pilot" -- Season 1, Episode 1 (Series Premiere, Airs Wednesday, July 5, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Amin Joseph as Jerome, Damson Idris as Franklin Saint. CR: Michael Yarish/FX

Beyond the illegalities at play, the producers saw an opportunity to tell a new story, both in how it’s presented and the knowledge within the writing.

“There’s never been a story that dramatized the West Coast cocaine rise,” Singleton said. “We’re not trying to be didactic. We’re not trying to educate you guys. It’s all based on oral storytelling by the people who lived this stuff. So we had to bring in people who could speak to that.”

Singleton and Andron both mentioned how they hired consultants to help make the series authentic, and they also thanked FX for letting them use language, violence, and sexual situations typically restricted on cable television.

In the pilot, a certain “cocaine delivery method” involves a straw and an orifice less commonly associated with getting high. After the crew again noted how they never got any pushback from FX, Singleton said it was important each episode had a “water cooler” moment.

“There has to be something that people want to talk about in every episode,” Singleton said.

After seeing the premiere, there’s sure to be at least one.

“Snowfall” premieres Wednesday, July 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.

The ATX TV Festival runs June 8 – 11 in Austin, Texas. IndieWire will be on the ground throughout, so check back for more coverage this weekend.

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