Director Malcolm D. Lee talks about his new film, working with Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac and future film projects
Malcolm D. Lee is certainly a rising star in the filmmaking community. After making his writing and directorial debut with The Best Man, he's gone on to make such films as the cult-classic Undercover Brother, Roll Bounce and two films last year with Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and Soul Men, which hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on February 10. I recently had the chance to speak with the talented director over the phone, and here's what he had to say.
First of all, how did Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone's script first come to you and how did you first come on board?
Malcolm D. Lee: I heard about it through my producing partner, Charles Castaldi, who said, 'This is about soul singers going cross-country, ' and I said, 'OK,' but I wasn't really... first of all, I'm really bad about reading scripts. Then I heard that Sam and Bernie were attached and it wasn't until Bob Weinstein came to me personally and offered me the movie that I even gave it a read.
Oh, so they had Sam and Bernie already attached?
Malcolm D. Lee: Yeah, they were already attached and I took a hold of it and read it. I really liked it. I thought it was very funny, very much Sam and Bernie. Plus there's this great backdrop of this homage to soul music. That's great music and it really doesn't get a chance to be heard nowadays or doesn't really get the lore it deserves. So, once the T's were crossed and the I's were dotted, I was on board.
What sorts of things did you do in preparation for this movie? You said you were a fan of this kind of music, so what kinds of research and other things did you do in preparing for this?
Malcolm D. Lee: I just tried to listen to all of the music, as much of it as I could, and got a really good music supervisor, which I did in Alex Steyermark, who had done a ton of movies and a lot of them with on-screen performances, and that was vitally important. I haven't had that experience, except for that one little karaoke scene in Undercover Brother, but nothing like this where there's dancing and singing and how is it done? Do we do pre-recording or do they sing live? There was that and then I looked at a number of road movies and buddy comedies and music movies, just to see what had been done before, what worked, what I felt worked, what I felt didn't work. Then I just tried to talk with Sam and Bernie as much as possible about their thoughts. They went through that era, or at least part of that era. They grew up around a lot of this music and I did to a degree, but not as much as them, I wanted to get their input as well. Then it's just a matter of doing what I do on other movies like finalize locations, finding the right look, researching and building the right team to do all those things.
You said they were attached before you came on, so was that a little intimidating to direct two legends like Sam and Bernie and what was your whole experience like working with them?
Malcolm D. Lee: It's funny, you know, over the years you work with different people and each film is a challenge. I was certainly much more intimidated and nervous in working with James Earl Jones, in Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins. But with Sam and Bernie, you just try to tell them what your vision is and what you see and put them at ease. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I think with this movie, these two guys had known each other and had a previous relationship and friendship. They kind of knew what they wanted to do with that relationship. I do recall when all three of us met for the first time and had a rehearsal, being so excited about coming out of that meeting because I said, 'If we can translate that chemistry, even a fraction of that chemistry on screen, this movie is going to be huge.' Well, we translated the chemistry, but the movie wasn't huge, but mission still accomplished, in terms of the chemistry that was there. All of this is because of them and the script was done to their particular strengths as performers. Bernie being much more of an improve guy and Floyd being the dreamer and Sam being much more grounded in his work and Louis being set in his ways, it worked for both of them. For me, my job was, OK, find the best place to get the camera to capture this stuff and the scene that I really wanted to concentrate on was the one where they first meet after 20 years or what have you. That was vitally important to get that scene right because the movie was about these two guys, and if we didn't care about these two guys after that scene, the movie wouldn't have worked, at all. Nobody would've gave a damn.
You have a pretty big supporting cast in this one as well with Sharon Leal, Sean Hayes, Mike Epps, Jennifer Coolidge, John Legend and Issac Hayes. Your last film had a pretty big supporting cast as well, so what did this really diverse supporting cast bring to the table?
Malcolm D. Lee: You know, it's very different with Roscoe and Soul Men. Roscoe, you're going to have all those actors throughout the movie and they are a fabric throughout the movie, in the beginning, the end and the middle. With Soul Men, by and large these characters are just passing through. They both have their challenges, so when you have somebody for a day or so or a week or so, you don't get to have much time with them and they're kind of passing in the night. I think it also works for the story because they're all strangers. Jennifer Coolidge, in particular, who was just so great and if she would've had any hang-ups at all, she wouldn't have worked. They both just went for it. Jennifer has no inhibitions whatsoever. She's a great sport and she's funny and she's just foul-mouthed and everything. It was great. When you have someone like Sam or Bernie who are running the show, or at least they're the focus, you've got to make sure that they're stories are being told through these other people. In something like Roscoe Jenkins, each character stands alone as a character and also stands alone in the story. With Soul Men, it was a little bit more difficult to do, because you just don't have the personal time with them, or what have you. Sometimes they're just in and out of the movie really quickly.
The film must be pretty bittersweet for you with the passing of Bernie and Issac (Hayes). Did you have any favorite memory from the set that really stands out?
Malcolm D. Lee: With Bernie in particular, he was just so great and gracious to the extras. We put in his homage, or his tribute how he was doing stand-up for them. Nobody asked him to do it, he just did it because he loved the fans. He loved to perform, you know. He'd been one of those people before, watching comedians. Not only was he a comedian, but a fan of comedy so he wanted to give back to the people. With Issac, I don't have any particular memory that stands out, but when we first me and invited him to be in the movie, and I saw this man and he was slowed by the stroke that he had suffered a couple of years back, but he still was very powerful. When I first walked into the restaurant where I was meeting him, he had his dark sunglasses on and an easy smile and was just very nice but just powerful and real. It was just a pleasure to meet this icon who was as friendly and as funny and as good-natured as you could be, and as down-to-earth as you could be. I'd say that about Bernie too, very down-to-earth, very real, soulful guy. When I say they were two real Soul Men, that's the truth.
I've got to say, I really loved Undercover Brother. You don't seem like a sequel kind of director, but has there ever been any talks of bringing that character back at all?
Malcolm D. Lee: There was talk a couple of years ago about doing a straight-to-DVD thing. I was not in the conversation, I had heard they were talking about it. I don't know. I think that was kind of a one-off and I think if it had really caught fire at the box office, then it would've happened, but it didn't, so it will probably never happen. But I'm proud of that movie.
Is there anything you can tell us about The Rucker or anything else you're looking to develop in the near future?
Malcolm D. Lee: Well, The Rucker is a project that I doubt will ever see the light of day. Who knows, but that was a project that, years ago now, that never got greenlit. It was supposed to be greenlit but didn't. It really broke my heart. What I'm doing now is I'm developing a couple of things, a historical drama, a Christmas action-adventure movie and I'm also writing a couple of things. I'm not quite sure exactly what they're going to be yet, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to do some writing this year.
Yeah, I saw The Rucker on IMDB and it's listed as being pre-production, but I don't know.
Malcolm D. Lee: No, that was years ago now. It was announced before Roll Bounce. Yeah. That was a dream project, a movie about street basketball. I really wanted to do it and I wrote a script that got the studio excited but it was one of those cost deals. Not a lot of actors play basketball, or play it well. Basketball is one of those sports that you just can't fake and you can't double everybody. The actor has to have some skills, in my estimation, the movie that I wanted to make.
Finally, for those who missed it in the theaters, what would you like to say about Soul Men to get the fans to pick this up on DVD?
Malcolm D. Lee: Well, they're going to see one of the greatest comedy duos ever to grace the screen. Sam and Bernie, they should've been and would've been the next Mathau and Lemon. I mean, they get to be funny in this relationship they're in and there's undeniable chemistry, is what should pull them in. There's a fair amount of profanity in the movie, but when you get those two together, there aren't too many people that say MF better than those two. It's a treat, it's funny, it's got some heart, great music and they do all their own singing and dancing. So, if you missed it, don't miss it any longer. It's a lot of fun.
Great. Well, that's about all I have for you, Malcolm. Thanks so much for your time today, and best of luck.
Malcolm D. Lee: No problem. Thanks.
Soul Men hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on February 10.