Emmanuel Itier: Tell us about the genesis of this project. Neil, this something different from what you’re known for…
Neil LaBute: I can tell you the genesis for me, which was twofold. I’d been looking for a comedy for quite some time, but getting people to believe that you are able to do something other than what you’re known for in this town is sometimes very difficult. Luckily, the exception in this case was that Chris Rock had originally seen the movie and wanted to make a picture of it in the States, and had worked with me ten years ago and had a good experience, and also had been a director in the last few years but wanted to act in terms of the production, rather than act and direct. So he was interested in knowing that I liked working with actors and scripts. I had also worked with Screen Gems, who were putting the film together. I had done Lakeview Terrace with them and had a good experience. So Clint Culpepper, the head of that company, said, “Let’s take a chance on somebody doing something different.” There’s always humor in what I do, sometimes unintentionally, frankly, but I’ve never done a comedy other than Nurse Betty, which had humor and scalpings co-existing. There’d never been anything like a straight-out comedy. It’s an expensive medium we work in, so to get the chance to do something, people will have to say, “I’ll trust you with $15 million, $20 million…” so it’s a big amount of trust. Luckily I was able to come into this and get a chance to work on what is essentially more a flat-out comedy than anything I’d done before. So it already existed as an idea and even a script, and I came in at that point, working with Chris, who was the only person in place at that point.
EI: Is there such a thing as a “black comedy”?
Chris Rock: There’s comedy that black people do and… To me, it’s all just comedy, to tell you the truth. I consider myself in the same line — there’s Richard and Eddie and Cosby, but I’m also the descendant of George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield and all those guys like that. So I just mix it all up. When I was a kid, we didn’t think Rodney Dangerfield was a funny white guy. We just thought he was a funny guy.
EI: This is sort of a record — to do a remake so quickly.
CR: One of the reasons I wanted to remake it is I saw it an art house. I saw it in a little theater with, like, ten people, and to me, this is like a pop movie. Why is it playing at a little art house? And me and the other ten people were laughing our asses off. If you’re in a theatre with no people laughing, you normally need other people around to get rid of your inhibitions. It was amazing.
EI: Did you think it might have taken a little longer? Why did you think this would be great with an American sensibility?
CR: I just thought the jokes would work in America. You watch a lot of the movies out right now — we’re not doing a lot of one-guy comedy right now. A lot of things are collaborations, something like Date Night right now, or The Hangover are a bunch of people, so I thought the fact that it had a lot of funny parts was perfect for me, not wanting to have to carry the whole movie, and also perfect (as) something the studio would really be into. So I thought it would work that way.
EI: Zoe [Saldana], can you talk a little about some of your scenes with James [Marsden] and being the only woman around all these funny men? Do you think they influenced you at all?
Zoe Saldana: No, I don’t think I’m funny at all, and I don’t want to be. But I just knew this was going to be an amazing experience. Everything about the concoction of this project was appealing, from Neil LaBute to Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracey Morgan, Danny Glover, and the rest of all of us coming from all the way down. I do remember asking my team who is going to be playing the crazy boyfriend that’s high on substances, and they said, “Oh, James Marsden,” and I’m like, “Oh my God.” It just felt, to me, like something I’ve never done before, and it was a challenge. I saw the first one and loved it. I’ve seen it like four or five times. Something about it just felt like, oh my god, that’s one thing the entire world has in common is funerals, and everybody has a crazy family member. It didn’t matter if it was in England or if it was here in America to me, not because I’m arrogant or anything, but it was going to work and it was hysterical.
EI: Chris, how would you like your funeral to play out?
CR: I’m not sure. I think I want all the living presidents there, and I want them all to be in shorts. The Stanley Cup somewhere around… I haven’t given it that much thought. Jay-Z to rap the eulogy…
EI: Chris, as the producer, who’s responsible for the outstanding cast?
CR: Clint Culpepper. Clint’s the man. I didn’t know Columbus, I didn’t know James. Clint’s like, “They’re in your movie.” “Oh, okay.” When we got Neil, a lot of actors were like, “Oh yeah, definitely want to work with Neil,” but when people started hearing Martin is doing it, it was like, “Oh shit.” Then Tracy signed up, once Martin got on it, it was like, “Don’t do that movie without me.” Once we got Martin, it was another movie.
EI: James, we loved your version of “Amazing Grace.” Where did that come from?
James Marsden: That was from Chris, I think. That was your addition, wasn’t it? I don’t know. I thought it was funnier if it really was a sincere offering of condolences to Loretta [Devine]. I remember Zoe and Columbus [Short] sitting there going, “You’ve got a voice, man, you’ve gotta go for it.” I was like, “I don’t know if it’s funnier if he can sing. Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t sing well.” They were, “No, no, no, sing as gospel as (you can). Go for it.” I did that on the last take (and it) became inspired.
EI: Given your “wardrobe” for most of the film, did you catch a cold?
JM: I gave the cold to Columbus’s cheek. No, they kept it nice and warm on the set. They wanted me to be comfortable. That was fun. I always said nudity is not a problem for me, but it must be in a comedy. There’s something uncomfortable about asking for the audience to be sincere or for the audience to take it really seriously and to get naked. If it’s for a joke, I’ll do it, I guess.
EI: Did you have any doubts about doing it?
JM: No, because I knew it was funny. I read the script on a flight from New York to L.A. and I didn’t know there had been a British film already made, so I just thought it was this great original kind of chamber piece that all this stuff takes place at this funeral, and I just thought the character was rich and I kept reminding myself what this guy has to endure, unbeknownst to him and involuntarily, which is always to me, so I didn’t think twice about taking it off.
EI: Is doing a remake more challenging than creating something from scratch?
NL: To me, it was a bit of each.
CR: Yes, it is a bit of each. Also, when you know a movie’s ending works, your life is so much easier. It doesn’t make the rest of the movie not difficult in parts, but boy when you know (the ending is great), I’ve remade a few movies and they all have one thing in common — great endings. So make sure that ending is tight. I would say it’s a little less challenging if you have a great ending. If you haven’t a great ending, don’t remake the movie.
NL: You know you’re climbing the same mountain, but you want to find a new way to do it as well, especially in this case. I think everyone who went into it who had seen it really loved it. There was no sense of, “Oh, we can make this better.” It was, “We’re going to make it our own.” It’s a whole different kind of family. The temperature was already 80 degrees above where this very reticent English family starts in the original, so we had to keep that temperature going all the time, ratcheting up the humor. For me, the only drawback in the original is that I think a few people are slighted along the way — some of the actors — and I think those that were slighted in the original have much more to do and are funnier as characters in this particular version. And we have a lot to stand up for because people look at the first one as we do and are appreciative, saying, “That’s really funny. Why are you remaking it?” Well, for a variety of reasons. So I think you do have that to live up to as well. So that is a challenge.
EI: Zoe, you did The Losers and this. Which one was done first?
ZS: This one. It really helped that we played brother and sister in this movie, because we’ve been on an inquisition since last year. We honestly do. We have the same father. Our mothers just haven’t told us yet. It really helped us because by the time we got to Puerto Rico, we felt confident enough to push each other as actors, and even though our characters really didn’t have much to do with each other, we were there as brother and sister off-camera, so it was pretty awesome, especially at night. … No, not like that. I mean in the casinos. We had fun at the casinos. Okay, then you know what? Let’s correct that. When I say “at night,” I mean after work, we’d always go to the hotel…in the lobby, it’s was like the cast and the crew. We’d have a drink and unwind and talk about the day, because we were doing a lot of action sequences. Okay, Columbus and I are having an affair.
EI: The casting was inspired. Obviously a mixed cast. Did it start out as a black version?
CR: I don’t know. I mean, I was the lead, I guess. I was Aaron, and I’m black. But okay, it’s me, Martin and Tracy. Can you name three white comedians that more white people would come and see? If I said no black people could come and see me next week in L.A., I would still sell more tickets. So I just consider myself a comedian. I’m a black man, but I know I’m down for the struggle. But I’m a comedian, and when you say “black,” it’s like a movie for a certain amount of people. You know what I mean? I’ve seen Martin Lawrence (play for) thousands and thousands of white people. Yes, it’s a black family, but when you say it that way, sometimes it just feels like it’s smaller. (Martin) is a black guy in Big Momma’s House. Would you call that a black movie?
EI: Yeah. [Laughs]
CR: I hope we make that kind of money. You can’t win. Big Momma’s House was huge.
EI: James, you were hysterical in this. How much was on the page and how much creativity did you bring to it? And Zoe, did James ever surprise you with what he did?
JM: I had to apologize to Zoe before every take, actually. I said, “Zoe, I’m sorry, but will you just indulge me? I’m going to try something.” She said, “Stop it, stop it, you’re on acid, do your thing.” The script was always really, really strong, and we always went in and did what was scripted because it was great and it was flawless, but I thank Neil for this — he afforded me a certain amount of creative license to have this balance of going in prepared but also allowing myself to remain relatively obtuse, or open to finding things throughout the day, so it was a great environment to go in, and I was definitely allowed to find things that maybe weren’t necessarily always there. But you had to be open to that to be out there in space like I was.
ZS: The funniest thing Jimmy did was the scene where he’s supposed to be completely naked on the rooftop and I’m supposed to open the window and go, “What are you doing? Come back inside.” He didn’t give me any warning that he had taken off his pants. So I’m talking with Luke inside, and then Neil yells, “Action.” I open the window and say, “What…” and I just looked at his eyes, I kept looking at his face. I could have been prepared to know that he was going to be naked, so I felt really…it’s awkward, you’re embarrassed, he’s embarrassed, and then they yell, “Cut,” and I yell at him, “Next time if you don’t tell me, I’ll punch you. I just need to be ready.” He said, “Thank you so much, you were such a gentleman. You kept looking at me in my eyes.”
JM: I wasn’t embarrassed.
EI: Chris, did this film resonate for you on a personal level, as you recently lost a father?
CR: I guess I went there a little bit, but my father, to the best of my knowledge, never fucked a midget. Let’s hope he didn’t. Yes, I definitely thought about my father and giving the eulogy. I didn’t give the eulogy at my dad’s funeral. I definitely went there a little bit mentally, yes.
EI: How did you guys avoid your own unique personas so much?
NL: (They) became comic actors, but they’re just really actors. They can riff for 20 minutes and get right back into (the script). Tracy occasionally would go and do something that was so funny, and I’d be listening to it… “I think he just said he was molested. I don’t think we can use that as the character,” but he’d go right back to the script and on we would go. One of the great things, I thought, in terms of everybody’s work was that we shot on video, and it allowed people to just work and never have to be stopped by the crew running out of camera, hair in the gate, the stuff that can happen when you shoot on film. The personalities who threw everything at a take, one after the other until they had nothing left to give, Chris would say, “I’m done, I’ve got nothing.” So you don’t want to be the one to say, “I’m sorry we have to cut,” and try and get that scene back. The atmosphere was just a creative one. People tended to try to stay on set. We even put a greenroom on set where actors could go and stay rather than go in their trailers. I think they wanted to see what other people were doing, and I think that’s part of what comedy is — to get immediate reaction from people, and your first audiences are the people you’re working with. So you get a sense of how the character is working by what you’re doing.
EI: Is there anything else you’d like to remake?
CR: I’m writing a movie, actually, for Mike Nichols. We’re doing High and Low. We’re getting that together now. That’s a remake of a Kurosawa thing, so that may be next, I’m not sure.
EI: You stayed faithful to the original…
NL: This may be one of the first remakes that actually has an actor repeat his very role. We gave him a rough version of the original — we gave him a leather jacket and a little bit of a beard, and I think a slightly nastier attitude to going after the money, but it was very inspiring in the first place because I understand it was Frank Oz’s idea to have that character played by Peter [Dinklage], and we thought it was kind of a genius idea to have him come back, and I like to acknowledge the original.
EI: Any final thoughts on the movie?
CR: I think we’ve made an American family comedy. I think this is a movie you can see with your whole family. This is a movie for absolutely everybody. That’s what I think. It’s got a big great cast, black, white…all the black people that aren’t in a Tyler Perry movie right now are in this movie. So if you like it, please spread the word.