The director discusses working with Martin Lawrence, finding humanity within comedy and directing multiple episodes of Roseanne
John Whitesell is a director who knows comedy. Having worked extensively with people named Cosby and Roseanne, this director is also responsible for such comic romps as Malibu's Most Wanted and is currently shooting the Christmas comedy Deck the Halls.
Overcoming a bad cold and with production on that film looming, Whitesell was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss his work on Big Momma's House 2. Directing someone like Martin Lawrence seems like a natural fit for a director of Whitesell's caliber. This film, which see's Martin Lawrence again dressed up in pounds of makeup, has a large amount of humanity embedded in the story. As Whitesell explained during our conversation, he doesn't see comedy and humanity as mutually exclusive.
Is it hard keeping a straight face directing Martin Lawrence underneath all that makeup?
John Whitesell: Yes. Absolutely, yes. It's hard not to laugh out loud and ruin the take. I have to control myself and there were a couple of times when we were in the mix, that the mixer turned around to me and said, "You'd make this a lot easier if you weren't laughing."
Having done Malibu's Most Wanted, Big Momma's House 2 and many episodes of Roseanne... what is it about comediennes that draws you to work with them?
John Whitesell: What it is is really great comediennes are always looking for the funny in the moment. They find they have an interesting take on life or take on a situation. And in that moment they can find humor in tragedy, good times, it's just that that kind of spontaneity always makes it really interesting to me. It makes it never the same. It always makes it fun and you don't know quite what you're going to get, but once you get something... you start with a germ and then you make it better.
When directing a film that is a sequel to a movie that was as popular as the first Big Momma's House, what are some of the pitfalls you try and avoid as a director?
John Whitesell: Well, two things. You don't want to do the same movie. You don't want to remake the same movie again because that I think is unsatisfying to the audience. So you want to take the character in a step that they haven't seen him in before. Two, you want to make sure that you give the audience the same kind of enjoyment that they got in the first one. The first one obviously was a huge hit and I think our job was not to disappoint. You always hope that they are gonna say, "We liked the second one better than the first one." But if they all say to you, "You know the first one is much better" you didn't do your job very well.
Was that the most difficult part of the shoot for you? Not giving them the same movie but still giving them that feeling?
John Whitesell: Yeah, we made a conscious decision to make it a little more family friendly, to take it into the house with the nanny and make it more domestic and more about the inner workings of a family. I think that was different than the first one. Martin's arc wasn't to fall in love and find the right girl, his arc was to love and understand how a family felt. So, I thought that was different but very true to Big Momma and to Martin. So everybody had some place to go.
How do you direct someone like Martin Lawrence? How do you harness that comedy and that energy while allowing it to remain fluid?
John Whitesell: I think the big key with any comedienne is that you hope the script is a good place to start from. The way I like to work with everybody is we try and get the script as it's written and feeling like we got it. Then, what can we do to make it better? Is there another angle? Is there another idea? Is there a different way to play it? You got some other ideas? Lets try this, and then, I never want the actor to leave the set feeling like they left anything in the locker room. So if they have an idea, I want to give it a shot. "I got an idea, I want to give it a shot." Hell, if the craft service guy has a good idea I want to give that a shot too.
I think you want to take an opportunity. Sometimes you find stuff by accident that's actually funnier than what you had before. Once you feel like you have what the script has, I like to experiment a little bit and make sure there's nothing out there that we didn't find.
Even though the mediums are different, do you feel that your television work has informed your theatrical work?
John Whitesell: They're much more different. In comedy and TV, every week you're trying to deliver sort of the same feeling back to the audience. That's what makes them comfortable. That's what makes them tune in Roseanne week after week. They like her, they want to see her in those situations. So you're recreating the same kind of feeling each week in TV. In the movies you're really creating a whole new environment. So it's incumbent upon you, you don't have that going for you so you have to do a beginning, middle and end. And create a style and create an environment that they can live in.
Of course every actor that's a big comedy star brings a certain feel, to a certain extent, for the audience, but they're looking at "Entertain me, get me involved and you know what, I have to pay money to come here! So I expect more than just sitting at home, on TV, watching it for free."
There's certainly that expectation when they see themselves spending money at the box office.
John Whitesell: Yeah, that and putting up the money for the concessions. It's an investment. So they really want to feel like they didn't get cheated.
What do you look for in the material that you direct? How do you decide what you're going to do?
John Whitesell: I like to see that there's some sort of humanity in the script. I've read some really, really funny scripts, but I didn't think it had the humanity that I was looking for. So I chose not to do that. For me there's some sort of humanity, or some sort of human nature about the condition, that's interesting, that I can relate to. That helps because I feel like I get a much bigger sense of what's going on.
What was the atmosphere on the set of a show like Roseanne? Did you have the sense when you were doing it that you were working on something pretty special?
John Whitesell: Well... you work all week so it's not like you don't have time. All week you're rehearsing and each time you're trying to make it better. Then you shoot it. And then get immediate results because four, five, six weeks later it's on screen. So that part of it you like because it's very immediate. It's exciting because it's a show and it's kind of a play time, like a play. The rest of the time it's just a normal kind of working set. I don't think you think you're thinking anything great. You know when it's funny and you know if you think you did a good scene, but I don't think anybody sits there thinking, "Boy, we're making history."
What are you currently working on now?
John Whitesell: I start shooting monday a movie called Deck the Halls for Fox and Regency. That is a Christmas movie. It will be out in November, Thanksgiving with Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristin Chenoweth and Kristin Davis. It's kind of The War of the Roses over Christmas lights.
Big Momma's House 2 is currently available on DVD through Fox Home Entertainment.
Dont't forget to also check out: Big Momma's House 2