Malcolm D. Lee on ‘The Best Man Holiday’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview was from a press day which took place in 2013.

In Hollywood, most sequels usually come out one to two years after the original because the studios want the money to keep rolling in while the property is still fresh in audiences’ collective minds. But when it came to making a sequel to “The Best Man,” writer and director Malcolm D. Lee was not about to rush it. “The Best Man Holiday” is being released 14 years after its predecessor, and it reunites Lee with Terrence Howard, Taye Diggs, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun and Melissa De Sousa who reprise their roles. This time the college friends reunite for the holidays at Lance and Mia’s mansion, and it soon reignites old rivalries and romances from the past.

Since “The Best Man,” Lee has gone on to direct the comedy “Undercover Brother,” the roller-skating comedy-drama “Roll Bounce,” “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” the musical comedy “Soul Men” and the horror spoof “Scary Movie 5.” We got to catch up with him when he appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. While there, Lee discussed why it took so long to make this sequel, what he thinks about the success that African American films have had in 2013, and of the possibility of there being a third “Best Man” movie.

Question: In a world where people are making sequels a year to three years later, what took you so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: Honestly, there was talk of doing a sequel very early on when the first movie came out, but I wasn’t interested in doing the sequel right away. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a director. It was my first movie and I didn’t want to just do the same thing. My idea was if I was going to revisit these characters, and I thought I would want to, it would be like 10 years later after they’ve lived some life and had kids. Around late 2005 or so I just started percolating the idea and I would see the cast over the years and say hey I’m thinking about doing the sequel, and they were like, oh okay. It just got to the point where I was like, okay I’m ready to do this now, and I had taken enough notes and put enough of a structure together where I said well, let me get the cast together and let’s see what can happen. I basically got them together in early 2011 and said okay, let’s all get in the same room and at least we will have all caught up. I have an idea for a sequel, and if we all think at the end of this meal that it’s worth doing then I’ll pursue it. So, I pitched them the idea and they were all into it and they liked it, and I said well, let’s go. Then a couple months later I went to Universal and pitched them the idea and we got it going. It took a while to get it going because I wrote the script pretty quickly because I had been thinking about it for so long, and it wasn’t easy. It was, as you’ve seen from the film, very different tonally speaking than the first one, and I think that was part of their hesitation of wanting to make it. I didn’t want to do the same thing again. I didn’t want to tell the same story. The things you think about when you are in your mid to late 20’s is very different than what you think about when you are in your late 30’s and early 40’s and married and have children and have bills to pay and do grown up stuff and dealing with grown up things. So, I said to them it’s not about wanting to do a destination wedding or anything like that. People loved this movie because they loved the characters. They loved the people. They don’t just love that it was a wedding. It took us bringing the cast together and doing a read through, and once they did the read through they were like okay, we get it.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting into the minds of these characters after so long?

Malcolm D. Lee: I know these characters very well. I’ve lived with them in my head for a long time so when you evolve as a person you have to have your characters evolve too. Not only that, but my actors were great actors in the first movie, and they are even better now. I have grown as an artist, as a writer and as a director. I’m better, so I wanted to make something that was more sophisticated, something that spoke to these characters that would be similar to where they were but which also showed their growth and evolution. I don’t think it was that difficult. It was just a matter of really knowing the characters and making them evolve.

Question: Did you seriously entertain other alternatives to the storyline for each character at any point?

Malcolm D. Lee: What I had come up with I pretty much stuck to. There wasn’t a whole lot of deviation. There were a lot of suggestions by the studio about making it a wedding movie and blah, blah, blah, and I was just like no I don’t want to do that. So, it was pretty much what I wanted to do, and the actors had some input about what they felt about their characters and where they could be strengthened and layered. Some of the suggestions from the studio were like, well this person is out of the picture already, this person is that already, and this person is divorced, and I was like I brought the cast back together and we are going to do this collectively, period. At least you’ve got to give this a fair shot. So that’s why we did the reading, and that’s what made them say oh okay, we get it.

Question: Futuristically speaking, do you foresee a production of a series or a spinoff from this kind of film like “Soul Food” or something similar to that?

Malcolm D. Lee: It’s possible. People love these characters and they want to live with these characters, so it’s a rich enough world and a world that’s rarely seen on network or cable television. The only danger would be like, could you get all the actors to do a series and where do you start it? Do you cast different people? So, I don’t know. I had the idea of, were this movie to be successful, to do a series that would take place from the end of the first movie until the second movie. That 14-year span might make for an interesting television show, but how do you cast that too? It’s possible. We’ll see.

Question: Have you thought about doing a third movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: Well we have to see how this one’s going to perform first. That will dictate whether a third one gets made or even talked about. There have been some whispers. I have an idea, let’s put it like that.

Question: What’s the idea?

Malcolm D. Lee: I’m not going to say.

Question: Are you going to wait another 15 years to make it?

Malcolm D. Lee: I will not wait another 15 years. If it happens at all, it’ll happen quickly.

Question: “The Best Man Holiday” actually feels like a stand-alone movie in that you don’t have to go back to the first movie to catch up with or relate to the characters. Was it important to you to make it a stand-alone film so that you can capture new audiences as well as retain the fans of the first?

Malcolm D. Lee: I don’t know if that was a conscious decision. When I set out to make the first film, I set out to make a classic movie, one that will stand the test of time. Fortunately, that has been the case. People really love “The Best Man,” and with this one I knew I had to, in my mind, make a movie that was better than the first. Or at least, in my mind, more sophisticated and more layered and have some deeper things to explore. So as a result, yes I guess the movie stands on its own but that’s what the whole opening credits are about which is trying to fill in people who may not know, and then also the fans of the first one get kind of tickled about remembering them then and this is what they’ve been doing and this is where they’re at now. I certainly wanted the movie to stand on its own and I think that there are people who really loved the first one will be more deeply connected. I think people that have not seen the first one was still enjoy this, but I think the fans of the first one will really enjoy this because they’ve had the experience of 14 years of viewing it.

Question: 2013 has been a great year for critically acclaimed black films. What do you think that means for the future of black filmmaking?

Malcolm D. Lee: We’ve seen these bursts before, and what happens is that studios and filmmakers start to churn out carbon copies of these movies. When Spike (Lee) first came out with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze,” it was like this Spike Lee phenomenon. There were a couple of movies that came out like “House Party” and “New Jack City,” and they were all different. John Singleton started with “Boyz n the Hood,” and that was like the whole hood genre and pushing that. Then “Menace II Society” and “Juice” came out and we got saturated with that and we were like, okay, what’s next? On their tail came “Love Jones,” “The Best Man” and “Soul Food” which gave us a different side of African-American life. Then in 2008, nobody wanted to make any black movies. They weren’t profitable, nobody was going to support them, people got tired of them and they petered out which is why I had to wait until “Jumping the Broom” came out before I went ahead and pitched the movie to Universal to see what the appetite of the studios and the audience was going to be. I hope that the diversity of African American fare this year will continue. It has been a very refreshing year to see sports movies, comedies, musicals, romantic comedies, historical drama and indie movies that are made by black filmmakers. So, I hope that it continues and that the quality of the work keeps getting better because I feel like that’s great. But if there’s like, oh, we can make money because they’re going to come out for Kevin Hart or this person or that person, then it’s going to be a money grab. It’s got to be about having choices at the movie theater that African-American audiences can enjoy and general audiences can enjoy, and just let it be a regular thing. Let’s see great movies.

Question: Can you tell us about more about the movie’s soundtrack and what role you played in it?

Malcolm D. Lee: One of the things that I was doing back in 2005 was listening to Christmas music and thinking about where it could fit into the movie. I love music. I think music and songs are such an integral part of filmmaking so I was playing a lot of Stevie Wonder’s Christmas music and Nat King Cole and Marvin Gaye. So, a lot of those songs were written into the movie, and then we get updates of many of them. It was very, very integral in the soundtrack and making sure that the sound that was created was going to be integral to the movie. I don’t like soundtracks that just are “inspired by.”

Question: How did you decide which artists to include in the soundtrack?

Malcolm D. Lee: You work with a label and they say well we got this person and we’ve got that person and it’s kind of like casting. I thought Fantasia would do a good job on this song, I think Jordan Sparks would do a good job on that song. Someone like Ne-Yo who came out of the blue, the song that he sings is a Marvin Gaye song called “I Want to Come Home for Christmas.” I thought that nobody was going to be able to replace that, but Ne-Yo came in and I showed him the scene and where it fit, and I showed them how important was for the movie and how the emotion was going to play. He said listen, I’m not going to sound like Martin, but I’m going to do it in a way that is me and it will be faithful, and he killed it. First time out and I was like, wow! That doesn’t always happen. Sometimes you’re just no, that’s not quite it. Let’s try that again. Also, the one song that’s featured, the Stevie Wonder song that Marsha Ambrosius and Anthony Hamilton sing on camera (“As”), that had to be in the movie where it was because it was very integral to the first film. I always felt that it was one of the greatest love songs ever made and it would be great to do it as a ballad or as a duet, so Marsha and Anthony were a great choice for that. It’s funny because people, when I’ve been watching the movie with audiences, love seeing Anthony, and then they recognize the song. And if that’s not enough, then they see Marsha and they are like, oh my god! It’s really a beautiful combination. We struck gold with that, I think.

Question: Which of the characters do you relate the most to and why, and did that change from the first movie to the second movie?

Malcolm D. Lee: There’s a little bit of me in all the characters. They’re all within me. I lived with them in my mind. Of course, there are female characters and there are certain things that I don’t know because I’m a man, and I observe and talk to people about how they feel about fidelity. Murch (played by Harold Perrineau) finding out those kinds of things about his wife and they have a great open relationship, but it’s like whoa, that’s something I didn’t expect. How do I deal with that? Should I be mad about that? I don’t think they’ve changed over the years. They’re pretty much the same to me.

Question: Can you walk us through what it’s like with your writing process when it comes to creating these characters? Where does it start and how does it develop?

Malcolm D. Lee: When it came to these characters, I want to see where they left off. From the get-go I just started saying that I wanted to set this movie at Christmas time because it’s a cinematic time of year, and it makes it a reason for being together. If you are going to bring these characters back together, it’s got to be for a reason. Harper (Taye Diggs) was kind of on top of the world when we left off. He had learned some things and had been beaten down a little bit, literally and figuratively, but he was on his ascension. So now I want to say okay, what if he has a couple of failed things? Lance (Morris Chestnut) has this seemingly charmed life and he does; he’s about to break a record, he’s got four beautiful children, he’s got this ginormous house and this wonderful, beautiful, supportive, loving wife, but there’s something that’s going to test his faith even more than in the first movie. And then you have the other characters and you just try to give them conflicts and obstacles that they have to get around. I’ve learned over the years to be a better writer and what characters are used for. Quentin (Terrence Howard) is going to be that button pusher still and he’s going to give us the comic relief and so is Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) and they’re going to be my comic fastballs, but at the same time they are more than they were in the first movie. I tried to write something sophisticated, challenging for myself and challenging for the actors because why come back together because it wasn’t for the money. This wasn’t a money grab at all. We did this for price and it was about displaying their acumen as actors, mine as a director and writer, and kind of re-introducing ourselves to the world and the time was right. We also knew that there was a large fan base for this movie that really wanted to see these characters again, so let’s give the people what they want.

“The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray, and it is available to stream on various digital platforms.

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