Malcolm D. Lee

Director Malcolm D. Lee of talks about his new film, the huge cast and going back home.

Malcolm D. Lee certainly has an eye for comedy and he's proven that with such films as the hilarious Undercover Brother and his upcoming film Soul Men, which sounds like a riot. His latest film is Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, which hits the DVD shelves on June 17. I had the chance to speak with this comic director over the phone, and here's what he had to say about this and upcoming projects.

Was this film rooted in any personal experiences of yours and, if not, where does the whole concept come from?

Malcolm D. Lee: Not specifically, no, but my family is from the South, my father's side of the family is from the South and we used to go down from New York in summers and stuff like that. It really came out of my desire to see some comedians in a family reunion type of setting. I had this idea years ago and it took me a long time to write it in between projects and stuff like that and I finally got it done. I wanted to see an American family in this type of setting and see what would ensue.

Do any of these characters have any sort of basis in your real family at all, or not so much?

Malcolm D. Lee: I mean, some of it, but there are just aspects. I've got cool funny uncles like Clyde, that Cedric (the Entertainer) plays. I know people like Otis, played by Michael Clarke Dunacn, a gifted athlete. I think James Earl Jones playing Papa Jenkins, it's not the same as my dad, but my dad was about strong family values and family is most important. Those aspects, certainly.

The cast here is just phenomenal. How many of these actors did you have in mind for these characters when you were writing it and what kind of surprises did you find in the casting process?

Malcolm D. Lee: Pretty much all of them I wrote for them. Certainly Martin (Lawrence), Mo'Nique, Mike Epps and Cedric the Entertainer. Michael Clarke Duncan was a surprise because, A) I wasn't sure he would do it. He's in a number of higher-profile films, but it was great to have him and he was much funnier than I anticipated, so that was great. We were able to get James Earl Jones which, to me, was the most important role after getting Roscoe. When he said yes, I was shocked and amazed and completely delighted. Obviously, he's an icon and he embodies and exudes respect, not only on screen but behind the scenes with the actors. Everybody knows and loves and respects James Earl Jones, so when it was time to work for the day and he's there, you've got to bring you're A game and that's what everybody did. It was a really good environment with all these actors on the set who, at one time or another, had been the star of their own movie.

You mentioned in the special features that the weather wasn't quite behaving for you guys. Can you give us any details on that and did it push your schedule back a lot?

Malcolm D. Lee: We were off a couple of days but we were able to gain them back. The studio was gracious enough to grant us time to do what we needed to do. Everybody was very committed. It was really during the obstacle course scene that was most crucial and most critical. It was something that our actors were really into it, meaning Martin and Cedric. They were great. They went full-throttle the whole time. Rain in Louisiana, weather in Louisiana, in general, is just crazy. It will change within twenty minutes. It will be pouring rain and cold and half an hour later it is bright and sunny and hot. We had to deal with those elements and on the DVD it talks about the rain and it was very frustrating. It was a real challenge, but, someone asked me earlier what my favorite scene in the movie was, and I have to say the obstacle course, I'm pretty proud of. I was able to get everything I want in it and it plays extremely well with an audience. Any time an audience would see that scene, it was big laughs. It was the big twist for Martin's character at the end too. You think he's going to help his son out and he chooses the wrong way to go. It's a big moment for him and it's hard for him in the last 20 minutes of the movie to make a comeback from that. It was tough though, a challenge.

You also mentioned on the features that with so many great comedians on this thing, it was tough to get through certain takes because everyone's just cracking up. Is that all part of the fun or does that get a little frustrating at times as well?

Malcolm D. Lee: Oh, it's part of the fun. As long as you can get some great stuff from it, from the improvisation. They weren't trying to make each other laugh when we really needed the work done. It never got to the point where I was like, 'Come on guys. Get it together.' They were all having fun. Comedians love to make other comedians laugh, so they know if a comedian laughs, somebody who's well versed at making crowds of people laugh, then they know they've got something funny. I certainly encouraged that all the time. Especially in comedy, you get comedians who know what they're doing when it comes to garnering laughter, you go 'Do one that's written in the script, and then just go off and do the other one for the next take.'

And just see what's better?

Malcolm D. Lee: Yeah, because it's just vitally important in any movie, but particularly a comedy, to have some choices of how jokes are delivered, certain intonations of words and all of that. If you get into a screening and you swear something is going to work and made you laugh and made everybody on set laugh, but an audience sees it and it's cut wrong... you get dead silence, crickets. You have no place to go and you just lose the joke and there might be some logic that you have that scene for. The flip side of that is if you're trying to cram too many jokes into a sequence. You want to leave them laughing with the highest joke and get out. Sometimes I try to milk the laughs as much as I can, but you can't always do that. I'm still learning as I go in making comedies. When they say comedy's hard, that's the truth.

Martin Lawrence, in his performances and in the roles he picks, has seemed to mature a lot or maybe dial it down a little bit. What was he like to work with and how did you approach directing him?

Malcolm D. Lee: Martin was great. I have to say, from the outset, you hear a lot of stories about his past and all the movies he's done, stuff like that, we had a great relationship. He came to me even before the first day of shooting and said, 'Look. You're the coach. We're the players and let us know what you want to do and we'll do it.' That gave me a great deal of confidence and made me feel great that he instilled that confidence in me, or had that confidence in me so that I could bring about what I liked about his performance or what I didn't want to have happen. In this movie, Martin is really a put-upon guy and really a straight man where other characters that are swirling around him and making him nuts. He does have those moments where we get those great Martin Lawrence facial expressions that nobody can do, that give you all kinds of laughs. Martin was a great guy to work with and he was very giving to the other actors to let them shine. He was like, 'I've been in Mike Epps' role. I've been in Mo'Nique's role. Let them do their thing and I'll just volley with them.' He was very generous but that's what the role calls for also and he didn't mind. It's not like he was taking a backseat, he's been the leading man where he has to deliver emotion and he has a great moment at the end of the race with James Earl Jones that still gives me chills.

Yeah. That was a really great part.

Malcolm D. Lee: Yeah. He even said it himself, that he had never gotten to that level before and he was very happy to have done that. He was kind of out of his skin that day. He was just really really good. He looked at it and was just, 'Wow. That was great.' Honestly, if you would let him, the audience and the studios, he could do a more dramatic role, I do believe.

I really liked the "Going Home" featurette where the cast was talking about their different stories about going home after making it big. Do you have any similar stories like that after your first movie hit big?

Malcolm D. Lee: Not particularly. People have misconceptions about how much money we make. They see those box office receipts and they go, 'Wow. You're a millionaire,' and I'm like, 'No. The studios are millionaires, not me. I get my fee up front and that's it.' You know, for the most part I've been greeted in a very warm way. Nothing really like on the level like those guys because they're involved so much in front of the camera that it doesn't really register in the same way. It's like, 'What do you do again? What is your role? Oh, you direct, OK.'

Is there anything you have in the works that you can tell us about? Anything you're writing?

Malcolm D. Lee: Nothing that I'm writing right now, but I'm editing a film that I just shot a few months ago called Soul Men, with Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. They play two former backup soul singers from the 60s and 70s who have to reunite, reluctantly, for a benefit concert for their former bandleader. The problem is they hate the bandleader and they hate each other and they have to reluctantly take this trip cross-country to do this benefit concert and along the way they have a number of encounters with a number of people and performances they do, just trying to get back in shape for the performance, they realize that they're at their best when they work with one another, even though they're always at each others throats, literally.

Yeah, I remember reading about that. It sounds like a really interesting flick. So, is there a release date set for that yet?

Malcolm D. Lee: November 14th.

Finally, there are a lot of movies like Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, the big star that goes back home. What do you think sets this movie apart from those other kinds of movies?

Malcolm D. Lee: Well, we have a hell of a cast. There are other movies out there that are like that but this one really is set apart because it is back-to-back, non-stop laughter, from the moment that he hits his old town, it's laughter non-stop. The characters are great and the actors who play them really bring a lot to the role. The good thing about this ensemble piece, and I love to do ensemble pieces, is every character has at least one moment where they really shine and they're memorable and you get not just a collection of comedic set pieces. It has real heart and real emotion and it's very funny and very relatable to all walks of life. Everybody has some form of family so they can relate to this movie, no matter what race, creed or color they may be.

Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you today, Malcolm. Thanks a lot for your time.

Malcolm D. Lee: All right, man. Thanks.

Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins will bring all the laughs to the DVD shelves on June 17.