Funny People – A Flawed But Fascinating Look at a Tortured Stand-Up Comedian

I always figured comedians were the best kind of people to hang out with as a kid. Hearing them tell funny stories, making joke after joke, happiness always seemed served up to them on a silver platter. But as time went on, I came to see while they were clowns on the outside, they were crying an endless river of tears inside. Comedy from these people comes from a deep pain and sadness in their lives, or out of a deep-seated anger they have at the world around them.

Look at Richard Pryor, need I say more? He had all the money, women, cars and drugs you could ever ask for. For “Superman III,” he ended up paid more than Christopher Reeve. Still, I remember reading an interview in which he said the last truly happy moment he remembers in his life was when he was jumping around in the dirt while pretending to be a cowboy at the age of 10, and he was in his 40’s when this interview was conducted. Comedy was his constant weapon against pain, and he never held anything back in his routines.

Funny People” understands very well this gloomy realm many comedians live in, and is written and directed by a filmmaker who still performs from time to time as a standup comedian, Judd Apatow. But unlike “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” this film has a darker edge to it and doesn’t hide away from the inherent viciousness of its characters. “Funny People” has been advertised as a comedy drama, but the balance often veers more to the dramatic. There are many laughs to be had here, but this movie clearly came from a rather dark place.

Adam Sandler stars as George Simmons, a comedian turned movie star whose career looks a lot like Sander’s own. George became famous with movies like “Merman” where he played a male mermaid, and “Re-do” in which he plays a character whose body has transformed into that of an infant. Seeing George’s head digitally inserted onto a baby’s body at once gives us a great sight gag, but it also seems like the kind of silly comedy Sandler himself has made once too often. Besides, I have more than my fill of talking babies.

George has it all: a beautiful mansion overlooking the sea, a swimming pool he does laps in on a regular basis, great cars, women who don’t hesitate to sleep with him even if they have boyfriends, and all the money one could hope to live off of to the end of time. But in his eyes, we see he is a sad man who has come to truly despise himself for what he has become. All the wealth he has amassed only serves to isolate him from the rest of the world, and it makes him defensive around total strangers who are unable to see him as ever resembling a regular person. But now, his doctor has diagnosed him with a terminal disease and has only months left to live. George reacts to this news as if someone drained his blood while he wasn’t looking, and it makes him realize how much self-hatred he has. From there, he becomes to make every last minute of his life count, but this may not alter his antagonistic personality from where it currently resides.

As George Simmons, Adam Sandler gives one of his best performances to date, and its right up there with his brilliant turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” Not once does he back down from how George is a hard man to like. Throughout “Funny People,” George is dismissive to many around him, and he ends up being thoughtlessly mean to those who look up to him. Regardless, Sandler still manages to make you sympathize with this character and of the terminable diagnosis which he did not see coming. It’s the moments where Sandler lets it show through his eyes just how full of regret Simmons is, and it serves as proof of how this former “Saturday Night Live” performer is more talented than he thinks.

Along with this famous comedian on his cynical farewell tour is Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an aspiring young comic who is not entirely confident with his stand-up act. George catches Ira’s act one night after he makes a surprise appearance at a comedy club, and while he is hurt when Ira discusses how he bombed onstage just moments before, George thinks this kid has got talent and offers to pay him some money to write up some jokes for an upcoming benefit show. From there, George hires Ira as his personal assistant, an employment opportunity which involves more work than the average 9 to 5 job which never pays enough.

Remember all those nasty horror stories from people who were assistants to the stars and certain sociopathic studio executives? Well, Ira may have gotten off easy compared to those people, but we fear his soul will be forever crushed the longer he stays with George.

In a lot of ways, Ira is they typical kind of character Rogen has played over and over again in movies, and not just the ones he does with Apatow. While I would love to see him take on riskier roles like the one he played in “Observe and Report,” he is the perfect match for Sandler’s endlessly cynical misanthrope of George. By the movie’s end, Rogen his performance proves to be the most underrated in the film, and he believably takes Ira from someone lacking in confidence to one who finds his voice with each standup routine he does to where he shows a strength he did not know he had. Rogen makes this transition feel seamless to where he had a stand out moment when he faces down Simmons and tries to make him see how his terminal disease has not come close to changing his outlook on life.

But the one person who almost steals “Funny People” is Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann. Having already proved what a comedy dynamo she was in her husband’s previous films, there should be no more talk from those who believe she has only gotten this far as an actress because of nepotism.

Mann plays Laura, and George describes her to Ira as “the one that got away.” Laura was and still is George’s one true love, and he finds she still yearns for him even though their relationship came to a heartbreaking end when he cheated on her. This is a moment George appears to regret more than any other, and he becomes eager to make up for it as soon as he can. Laura never tries to hide her character’s undying affection for this man who is lonelier than most, and she is willing to end her marriage to an Australian soccer nut (Eric Bana, who is hilarious) who may be cheating on her as well. As Laura, Mann succeeds in making you fall for this character even while she selfishly tries to redirect her life without realizing the consequences of her actions.

There are a lot of strong elements working in favor for “Funny People,” but it doesn’t change the fact it is a deeply flawed movie. While it is good and worth watching, it will most likely be seen as one of Apatow’s weakest movies. I do like how he dared to go in a slightly different direction with this movie compared to what he has given us previously, but the balance between comedy and drama is off kilter most of the time. For many, I don’t think it will be entirely clear as to whether they are watching something comic or very serious.

Plus, at over two hours long, this movie really could have been shorter. I’m usually cool with long movies, but only if they can justify their length. It is way too easy to come off as self-indulgent when making a three-hour epic. “Funny People’s” length does cut deeply into its comic momentum, and there are spots where it things really dragged. It does pick up towards the end, but the story still could have used a bit more tightening.

Still, I really did like “Funny People” because it shows how Apatow still succeeds in giving us characters and situations which feel very real on an emotional level. With him taking his established formulas in a different direction, it is clear his work will continue to grow with each successive project he takes on.

I also love the brilliant cameos he manages to extract from big celebrities in his films. One scene in “Funny People” has George meeting up with a lot of famous comedians like Norm McDonald, Andy Dick (wow), Charles Fleischer, Collin Quinn and Sarah Silverman who has one of the movie’s funniest scenes. But the biggest surprise cameo to be found here is Eminem’s as I never expected to see him in any movie, let alone one directed by Apatow. Seeing him dissing Ray Romano provides us with an unforgettable moment where Ira ends up saying to Ray, “I thought everybody loved you.”

One perception about “Funny People” which needs to be cleared up is that it is not what many would call a “disease movie.” It is really to Apatow’s credit here that he never gets all mushy on us like many others would have when it comes to films about people who think they are facing certain death. George’s arc here is much like the character Michael Keaton played in “Clean and Sober.” In the process of trying to improve themselves and become better people, they end up fooling themselves to where they think they are changing for the better, but are instead acting more selfishly than they realize. Their attempts to help those in desperate situations reveal just how self-involved they are, and it just gets worse for them from there. It is not until the climax which has them at a place where they realize what they truly need to do to move on from a fractured past.

“Funny People” is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t go in with the normal set of expectations you have for the average Apatow production because things are a little different here. It definitely has some hilarious moments and dramatic ones, and Sandler makes it clear to us he can be a great actor when given the right material. It is also an intimate look at the fame and success one person experiences, and of how damaging and isolating it can be.

This project was really a long time coming for both Apatow and Sandler because they did share an apartment when they first moved out to Los Angeles. “Funny People” actually starts off with home video footage of them making prank phone calls which has them laughing in hysterics. It is meant to be a look of innocence which fame forever changes, but at least we can see how in real life these two funny men have their families to keep their egos in balance. George Simmons is simply the person each of them would have become if they weren’t careful.

* * * out of * * * *

Steven Soderbergh Looks Back at King of the Hill

WRITER’S NOTE: The following article is about a screening which took place back in 2011.

In the midst of promoting “Contagion” in Los Angeles, California, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh dropped by the Silent Movie Theater where Cinefamily was screening one of his earlier and most underrated features, “King of the Hill.” Not to be confused with the Fox animated series, the film follows 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) who is forced to fend for himself in Depression era America after his parents leave him alone at the Empire Hotel in St. Louis. Aaron is forced to grow up a lot faster than any kid should ever have to, and he desperately searches for ways to avoid eviction from the family’s apartment. Soderbergh thanked the sold-out crowd for coming to the theater, and he started off by saying, “Why aren’t you guys going to see ‘Contagion’? This film is never going into profit!”

“King of the Hill” was Soderbergh’s third film after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” and “Kafka,” and it was released back in 1993. Based on the memoir of the same name by A.E. Hotchner, it was given to him as a gift by a friend. At the time he was looking for something different than “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” and he found Hotchner’s story to be just what he needed. He did, however, describe it as a “tricky adaptation” since he only had a budget of $8 million and 48 days to shoot the film, and it was a period piece. On the upside, though, he said Universal Pictures, which released the movie through its Gramercy Pictures division, was “hands off” during the production.

Watching it again, Soderbergh described it as the one movie of his he might change aesthetically. He felt the prettiness of the picture would help counteract the harsher parts of the story, but now finds the film to be “almost too pretty.” Most of the conversation he had in pre-production involved the overall palette color which he and cinematographer Elliot Davis wanted to remain within a certain range. Were he to film it today, Soderbergh said he would go out of his way to make it “less commercial.”

Soderbergh recalled doing three preview screenings of his movie, none of which went well. When finished with the project, he admitted feeling somewhat dissatisfied as the movie’s ending did not seem entirely satisfactory to him. Whatever problems he had, they did not stop him from trying to adapt Hotchner’s follow up memoir “Looking for Miracles” which focused on the writer’s relationship with his brother. Sadly, Soderbergh’s hopes were quickly dashed when “King of the Hill” did not find an audience upon its release.

Regardless of his feelings, the audience was in agreement that “King of the Hill” is a great film, and it truly is one of Soderbergh’s best works. The director also found a big fan in Sid Sheinberg, the famous entertainment executive, who, soon after seeing it, introduced him to Lew Wasserman. It also made Soderbergh how that he didn’t enjoy writing as much as he thought, but he did continue writing screenplays for his films “The Underneath,” “Schizopolis,” and his remake of “Solaris.” This was one of five films he did after “Sex, Lies & Videotape” which he openly admitted “did no business,” but perhaps they will eventually.

“King of the Hill” is not currently available on DVD (not in America anyway) or Blu-ray, nor is it available to stream on Netflix. Soderbergh remarked this is because “cult flicks are not marketable right now” and that “no one buys DVD’s anymore.” But with this director being so highly regarded in Hollywood, hopefully this third film of his will get the digital release it deserves so fans can discover it for the great movie it is.

UPDATE: “King of the Hill” has since been released by the Criterion Collection in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. It features a new restored 2K digital film transfer, interviews with Soderbergh and Hotchner, movie trailers, and Soderbergh’s fourth film “The Underneath.” To find out more about this release, click here.

Richard Tyson on Playing Buddy Revell in Three O’Clock High

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

“Every day of my life for the last twenty years, people come up to me, look me in the eyes and say ‘Buddy Revell!'”

That’s what actor Richard Tyson told the audience at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles where the theater was showing “Three O’Clock High” in honor of its 25th anniversary. The 1987 high school comedy marked Tyson’s film debut, and his character of Buddy Revell was the school bully who threatens the meek Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) to a fight after Jerry touches him on his leather jacket. From that point on, it is clear you never ever touch Buddy Revell at any time.

Around the time the movie was headed into pre-production, Tyson had just graduated with a Master of Theater Arts degree from Cornell University and was living out of his truck when he heard about it. Apparently, he went through about 14 callbacks before he got cast as Buddy, but the film’s director Phil Joanou was always convinced Tyson was the only one for the role.

Phil Joanou: While Jerry is so manic and nervous and flopping like a fish on the deck, Buddy is like an iceberg floating across. Just cool, he sits in the class, he just looks over at Jerry then he looks back. Buddy’s almost expressionless, and so many other actors would have been expressionless, but what was so cool about what Richard did is that he’s doing nothing but he’s doing something. That’s really hard to do, but you can see that there’s something going on behind this guy’s eyes.

In talking about how he established Buddy Revell’s physicality, Tyson brought up the scene where Buddy gets in a fight with the jock in the library. Joanou asked Tyson what he would do if someone came up and poked him in you the chest the way Buddy gets poked, and Tyson responded he would “break his fucking finger” and then showed him how he would do so. Once he was convinced, Joanou asked Tyson if he could throw a right cross punch after breaking the finger and Tyson had no problem doing so.

It’s important to note that the screenwriters of “Three O’Clock High,” Richard Christian Matheson and Thomas Szollosi, were on set the day the library scene was being shot. Matheson and Szollosi had their doubts about Tyson at first, but after watching him in action, they were convinced the filmmakers got the right guy to play Buddy.

In comparison to all the bullies we see and hear about on school campuses these days, Tyson said he didn’t think Buddy was really a bully.

Richard Tyson: I think the system, the school and the environment were worse than him. It’s not just the guy in the leather jacket. The leather jacket guys are usually left alone. Just don’t touch them in the bathroom!

What was great about Tyson’s performance in “Three O’Clock High,” and Joanou pointed this out, was in showing how Buddy was always in control and of what happened when he loses control. When Jerry manages to punch Buddy in the nose, you suddenly see the rage in his face as he registers this is the first time he has ever been hit and drawn blood. Seeing that look of rage which crosses his face shows what makes Tyson’s performance so damn good: he shows you the character’s emotions without ever having to spell it out for you.

Richard Tyson went from “Three O’Clock High” to starring in such movies as “Two Moon Junction,” “Kindergarten Cop” where he played Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nemesis, and “There’s Something About Mary” in which he banged Ben Stiller’s head on a table several times. Tyson’s still got a lot of great work ahead of him, but we will never ever forget his performance as Buddy Revell.

Amy Heckerling Looks Back at Fast Times at Ridgemont High

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in July of 2011.

It is very scary to realize “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is now at its 30-year anniversary. Although dated stylistically, what the students went through in this movie still feels very relevant to what today’s generation goes through on a regular basis. Based on the book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay, it follows a group of students during one year at a San Diego high school. Its director, Amy Heckerling, dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the behind the scenes stories, and she was greeted by a sold-out audience.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont” is notable for its frank depiction of teenage sexuality and in dealing with highly sensitive topics like abortion. Heckerling said the movie was shot at a time when things were rapidly changing. The sexual revolution was ending and the era of Ronald Reagan was on the rise along with conservatism. Most teenage comedies deal with situations from the male point of view, but Heckerling was adamant about the audience seeing things from the woman’s perspective. The MPAA, however, forced her to cut scenes like when a girl talks to her mother about blow jobs in order to avoid an X-rating. After all these years, the hypocrisy of the MPAA never ceases to amaze me.

These days, the movie is known for having three future Oscar winners in its cast: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, who is credited here as Nicolas Coppola. This is not to mention all the other cast members like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates, both of whom went on to other successful efforts after this movie’s release.

Heckerling recalled coming into this movie at what she called an “awesome” time. Casting young kids in a movie proved to be tricky, but she loved how there was so much great talent to choose from. When asked if she thought all great actors could do comedy, Heckerling replied some have it in their makeup while others do not. In working with Penn, she said he is wonderful in everything he does, and his smile always lights up whatever room he is in.

In talking about the soundtrack, Heckerling wanted to fill it with 1980’s music and songs by Oingo Boingo and the Go-Go’s. While she got to include the songs she wanted in the movie, she was also forced to add in a lot of 1970’s rock music from bands like The Eagles. This was in large part due to one of the movie’s producers, Irving Azroff, being the personal manager of The Eagles at the time.

One audience member asked Heckerling if the studio proposed any sequels or prequels to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” She said when the movie was screened in Westwood, one studio executive suggested, “How about ‘Spicoli Goes to College?'”

There was a television spinoff but, like many of its kind, it proved to be short lived. There was also something of a follow up to “Fast Times” called “The Wild Life,” which was also written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Art Linson, but Heckerling said it was not strictly a sequel.

As unbelievable as it is that we are now at the 30th anniversary of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” it only goes to show this particular movie’s staying power. It remains as raunchy and funny as when it first came out, and it is also one of the great time capsules of the 1980’s. This is the kind of movie which really does not need a sequel or a prequel at this point to justify its success or longevity.

So Bad Its Good: Josh Olson on His Favorite Cult Movie Musicals

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in 2012.

Writer Josh Olson, best known for penning the screenplay to David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” dropped by New Beverly Cinema to introduce two of his favorite cult movie musicals: “The Apple” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” These films were not well received critically or commercially when first released, but they have since gained a cult following, and the fans have come to appreciate them for reasons the filmmakers did not exactly intend. This was especially the case with “The Apple” which has since become one of the most unique movie musicals ever made.

Olson thanked those who came to this double feature and made clear to us he worships at the altar of “The Apple” and shows it to those unfamiliar with it (a.k.a. virgins) everywhere. He even remarked how two close friends of his, after they saw it, had a baby. The movie tells the story of two young Canadian musicians, Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart), who travel to America to participate in an infinitely popular music festival. They are approached by the powerful entertainment agent Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) to sign with him, but Alphie sees the dark side of the music industry and refuses to be a part of it. Bibi, however, finds herself caught up in the wild lifestyle this industry has to offer, and it is up to Alfie to rescue her from Boogalow’s evil clutches.

In addition to screenwriting, Olson works for a website run by filmmaker Joe Dante called Trailers from Hell, and he talked about how the trailer for “The Apple” was one of the first he did a commentary track for.

Josh Olson: I stand by almost everything I said on that commentary except at one point I did use the phrase “it’s so bad it’s good,” and I regret that today. This movie has taught me that that phrase is meaningless. Intention does not matter. There are great movies out there that are so much better than the filmmakers intended them to make or had a right to make. Everything is accidental in this business so I don’t think it matters. I think either a movie is great or it is not, and there are movies that people think are wonderful that just won’t entertain you one iota as much as “The Apple” will.

Olson made it clear to the audience he will never again use the phrase “so bad its good” in reference to “The Apple” as he considers it to be one of the greatest movies in the history of the world. Once it was shown, he came back to the front of the audience to introduce the movie version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and said there was no way to top “The Apple,” so he wasn’t going to even try.

Olson talked briefly about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” before it started. It was directed by Michael Schultz who previously made “Car Wash” which Olson described as a “weird, urban Robert Altman film,” and also “Cooley High” which he called one of the most formative films from his childhood. Olson told the audience at the New Beverly how Schultz got involved in making a cinematic adaptation of the Beatles’ classic album.

Josh Olson: Robert Stigwood (one of the most successful movie producers of the 1970’s) came to him and offered him “Grease” to direct, and Schultz looked at it and said, “This is fucking horrible and I don’t want anything to do with it.” So, he passed on “Grease” and it then went on to make a trillion dollars, and Robert Stigwood came back to him with the idea of turning the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” into a movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. To this, Schultz said, “Wow, this sounds like a worse idea than ‘Grease.’ But what do I know, I passed on ‘Grease.’”

After watching the “Sgt. Pepper” movie, we were all in agreement with Olson that it was one of the most “batshit” ideas for a feature film, and it remains one of the biggest critical disasters in motion picture history. Olson, however, did try to rationalize this particular movie’s existence as it was made back in the 1970’s.

Josh Olson: It was a better time back then, and you have to have the yin to balance out the yang. The really good ones (movies) were almost indistinguishable from the really bad ones. But we had people thinking “Sgt. Pepper” was a good idea for a movie, and we also had people who were making “Apocalypse Now” back then, so it was a small price to pay.

Big thanks to Josh Olson for putting this crazy double feature together. “The Apple” isn’t so much a movie musical as it is an experience, and you won’t find another one quite like it. As for “Sgt. Pepper,” we may never get another opportunity to see it on the big screen again, so those who stayed could not quite say they regretted sitting through it. But yeah, it really was a bad idea for a movie.

Edgar Wright Talks with John Landis About ‘Animal House’

Asks for Babs!

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Edgar Wright continued his film festival he named The Wright Stuff II at New Beverly Cinema with “Animal House,” and joining him for this screening was special guest John Landis who directed it and succeeded in making what Wright called the first “adult gross out comedy ever.” Landis said director Todd Phillips had already made three movies where he did several shot for shot steals from “Animal House,” and even Wright had to admit he may have subconsciously stolen the taking coat gag for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” from it as well.

“Animal House” was Landis’ third film, and he made it soon after finishing “Kentucky Fried Movie.” However, he was not the first choice to direct as it was initially offered to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”), then later to Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) who all turned it down. Landis said they all passed on it saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Landis was drawn to this project by what he called “a very smart script” written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. Landis gave a lot of the credit to Kenney who had come to this from the Harvard Lampoon where he was described as being “consistently brilliant.” Kenney wrote scripts called “Laser Orgy Girls” and “Charles Manson In High School,” but then he did “High School Yearbook” which eventually evolved into “Animal House.” The thought was there were so many off-color elements to where it made more sense to set it in college.

“Animal House” marked the film debut of many young actors who would soon become big stars in their own right. It was John Belushi’s first movie, and he was already an established star thanks to “Saturday Night Live.” Tom Hulce was doing the play “Equis” on Broadway when cast, and Bruce McGill was discovered doing Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Karen Allen, she originally drove her friend to audition for it, but she never planned to audition herself. But Landis took one look and told her, “First off, you just lost a friend. Second, we want you in the movie!”

Others from “Saturday Night Live” were considered, but Lorne Michaels was getting pissed about losing more of his cast. While Landis got Belushi despite a crazy schedule which had him available for only three days a week, Michaels refused to let Dan Aykroyd be in it. Then there was Chevy Chase, the show’s first breakout star, who was getting offered everything and decided to do “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn instead.

The only veterans in “Animal House” were Tim Matheson who started off as a child actor, and Donald Sutherland who was already a big star. All of Sutherland’s scenes were shot in two days, and he was offered $35,000 plus gross points. Sutherland, however, instead took an offer of a flat $50,000 which turned out later to be a mistake as the movie made over $140 million. Everyone else was paid scale except for Belushi, and the horse got $150,000. This led Landis to admit, “I got paid less than the horse!”

The late John Vernon who played Dean Wormer was talked about quite a bit. Vernon played his role so deadly straight, and Landis said Vernon got exactly what the movie was all about. Vernon was also the only one involved with “Animal House” who knew it would be a success as Landis remarked at how he said, “No one realizes what an important movie this will be.”

“Animal House” had a budget of $2.1 million, was shot in 32 days and averaged about 43 setups each day of shooting. Landis said the studio left them alone during the making of it, but they later complained about certain things. They did not like the actors who were chosen and even said, “Why’d you hire John Vernon?! He’s a television actor, a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie!”

The studio also voiced concern over the scene where some of the characters visit a black bar. They feared, Landis quoted them as saying, that “black people will riot” and would “tear up the screen.” But Landis and the producers were adamant of how the scene was told from a white person’s perspective and that it was meant to be subjective. Landis even got Richard Pryor’s take on it, and Pryor said, “I think it’s funny and white people are crazy!”

Studio executives also had an issue with the girls never being shown going home after the party. This led one of them to ask, “How do we know those girls weren’t raped?”

Test screening “Animal House” was an interesting story. The filmmakers took it to Denver where it had audiences screaming with laughter. Landis even taped the audience’s reaction and played it for Belushi over the phone. As a result, Belushi jumped at the chance to attend another screening of it in Atlanta where it ended up being shown to a bunch of what Landis called “drunken booksellers” who sat in stone cold silence throughout. Landis said Belushi came out of it saying the movie needed to be recut, but he was told to shut up by the producers who reminded him he wasn’t around for the Denver preview.

In the end, audiences found “Animal House” to be extremely funny and filled with many laugh-out loud moments, and that’s even if not everybody got the Belushi erection joke. That there was a sold-out audience at the New Beverly is proof of how it continues to stand the test of time. Landis thanked everyone for coming out and said the movie will soon be debuting on Blu-ray, and that all the grain which was taken out while being remastered has been put right back in.

‘The Best Man Holiday’ Interview with Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

Nia Long and Eddie Cibrian

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on an interview which took place back in 2013.

It has been over a decade since “The Best Man” came out in theaters, and now Nia Long returns to play Jordan Armstrong in the eagerly awaited sequel “The Best Man Holiday.” Whereas in the original she was a producer for the BET network, we now find Jordan working as the director of programming at MSNBC. She remains as work obsessed as ever, but she has found time to snag a boyfriend named Brian who is played by Eddie Cibrian. But while she is completely smitten with him, can Jordan find the power to pull herself away from her job enough to fully commit to a relationship? Also, will Jordan’s friends have an issue with Brian being white?

Long is best known for her work on the television shows “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Third Watch,” and she has appeared in the movies “Boyz n The Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Big Momma’s House.” Cibrian also appeared on “Third Watch,” and many still remember him best as Cole Deschanel on “Sunset Beach.”

We got to catch up with Long and Cibrian when they appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for “The Best Man Holiday” press junket. Long talked about what it was like playing Jordan Armstrong for the first time in 14 years, and of how she has managed to have such a long career. Cibrian discussed what it was like joining this closely knit cast, and of how he came to deliver one of the best lines in this sequel.

Question: Nia, 14 years ago you played this role. Was it easy or difficult to pick the character up again 14 years later?

Nia Long: Getting back into character wasn’t so difficult. What was difficult was determining what her journey has been like for the last 14 years and making sure that I maintained certain things about Jordan in this film. But also, we just really needed to be clear about what her emotional journey was. For me that was pretty much the motivation and the most important thing.

Question: What was the deciding moment for you to sign onto this sequel?

Nia Long: We all decided that before Malcolm really finished the script. He kind of came to each one of us and said, “Would you guys be interested in doing the sequel?” We all just decided that if the script is great and the story is there and the characters have grown, why not? So that’s basically what happened and it was pretty easy.

Question: Eddie, you are the new kid on the block here so you are essentially joining the cast that already has a chemistry. Was it daunting for you coming on knowing that these guys have a connection?

Eddie Cibrian: You know, I think what Malcolm was looking for was someone who could feel at ease in the environment, and I’m kind of that way personally as well. For me, I’ve worked with a handful of them before so I already knew them and it wasn’t like I was meeting this team for the first time. Nia and I worked together while we were doing a show called “Third Watch” in New York, Morris (Chestnut) I’ve worked with a handful of times so I already knew some people which made it easier for me. But I think what Malcolm wanted was someone who didn’t feel intimidated in this situation, and I hope that came across that he (my character) is somebody who’s just at ease with himself and the environment.

Question: The female characters are all so strong and so diverse. Why is it important that we see these types of images in the media?

Nia Long: I’m all about girl power…

Eddie Cibrian: She is!

Nia Long: I am, right? I love my girlfriends; I think sisterhood is so important. I think learning from one another culturally is really important no matter where you are from or what you look like. If we can come together as women, I think we are just so much more powerful when we stand in a group. I’m not afraid to say I am a bit of a feminist. I think that we are incredible. What’s so great about Malcolm’s writing is that he does give each character a very specific voice, and the reason why we have so many women who actually love the “Best Man” brand is because they can look at the film and almost point themselves out or at least say I’m a combination between Jordan and Shelby or Robin and Nia or whatever it is. As an actor you don’t get those opportunities to really work alongside other great women, and that’s such a blessing. I mean when’s the last time you’ve seen a film where there were four African American women that are actually all in the same movie? It doesn’t happen all the time so you’ve got to take the ball and run when you get it and get that touchdown.

Question: It is 14 years later and you still look amazing. What are some of your beauty secrets?

Nia Long: Oh my gosh! Should I tell them?

Eddie Cibrian: I don’t know.

Nia Long: He saw everything that goes on in the trailer.

Eddie Cibrian: She’s got some beauty secrets. She’s naturally beautiful, that’s her secret and that’s the truth.

Nia Long: Thank you. You know what it is? I just take care of myself, and when I’m not working, I’m with my kids. In mommy mode you are in sneakers with no makeup and my hair is really combed, so that’s what it is. You guys just don’t see me out there all the time, so when I do come out there it’s like, oh okay, you’re back.

Question: Nia, can you describe what it was like coming back to this cast 14 years later?

Nia Long: We would have to these roundtable discussions where they would always put our chairs altogether. The girls would be kind of grouped together and the guys would be grouped together, and we would have some pretty intense conversations about everything and we would get into debates on love and relationships. I don’t want to be inappropriate but we were like college kids at times (laughs).

Eddie Cibrian: This was in between takes.

Nia Long: Yes. We were like bad children. That’s what we were like, but we got it done.

Question: Nia, when it comes to your career, your longevity is something many actors and actresses continually strive for. What has been the key to remaining relevant after so long?

Nia Long: Dealing with my life and truth, dealing with my career and truth, saying no and I’m never really motivated by money. I am motivated more by the creative (aspects)… Well that’s not true. Let’s not get too carried away (laughs). I have bills to pay. Sometimes money is okay. I think just staying true to myself. My dear brother who I miss every single day, Heavy D, said to me, “This is not a race, it’s a marathon.” Whenever I get frustrated or unsure about what to do next, I always think about him saying that to me because it’s very true. Don’t you feel that when one door closes something else opens and you’re like, whoa, I didn’t expect that? You just go with it if it’s right in your heart.

Eddie Cibrian: Plus, you’re very good at what you do. That helps.

Nia Long: Thank you!

Question: Eddie, you delivered one of the most memorable lines in the movie when you said, “You have to be a bitch to be concerned about your woman’s past.” How did that scene play out for you and how did you go about delivering that line?

Eddie Cibrian: Well you have to think Malcolm for that because it was written. I wasn’t clever enough to come up with that line. I think what Malcolm’s intention was that everyone has a past, everyone has made stupid mistakes, everyone has done things that they are probably not proud of, but that’s in the past and that’s made them who they are now. They are a different person, and if you fell in love with them for who they are now and what their truth is now, then who cares what their past is? They weren’t just born. They have had life experiences to get them to where they are.

Nia Long: And who wants a virgin? (laughs)

Question: Who are some of your mentors and the people that have kept you going this whole time?

Nia Long: I was doing a film called “Made in America” with Whoopi Goldberg, and I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I was just like a little deer in the headlights and Whoopi Goldberg said to me, “This business is tough and you are going to have to develop a second layer of skin.” And now when I think back on that, I know exactly what she means because as an actor you want to keep your heart open so you can do good work. The only place that good work comes from is by being vulnerable. But in the business side of this, you can’t really be vulnerable. You have to separate the two and it took a long time for me to understand that because naturally I’m just an emotional being. That’s just kind of who I am. So, I would say Whoopi, Heavy D who I think about almost every day, my brother and my grandmother who said, “You know when they stop talking about you, that’s when you need to worry.”

Eddie Cibrian: My dad really. When I was first getting into this business, he would take me around to auditions. I was doing commercials and stuff like that and I was an athlete and I just wanted to play sports, but he was like “no, you can do this.” And I was like, “I don’t really wanna do this” and he was like, “You can do this.” And so we would go to 100 to 200 auditions in a year and I would get four or five of those, but every single time I would go I was like, “Why am I not getting these? I don’t understand.” He said, “Well look, you don’t have to get a yes every single time. You just got to get the right yes.” That’s the way it is. We go out on a bunch of different things and we wish we could get a bunch of different things. We wish we could get everything that we go out on, but we don’t because there are thousands of people out there. But the ones that you do get and they say yes to, those are the ones where you have to make something of, and those are the important ones. I thank my dad for that.

Nia Long: I like your dad. Where is he?

Eddie Cibrian: He’s at home sleeping (laughs).

The Best Man Holiday” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and various streaming services.

Scene from “The Best Man Holiday”

‘The Best Man Holiday’ Interview with Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan return to reprise their roles of Harper and Robin from 1999’s “The Best Man” in writer/director Malcolm D. Lee’s long-awaited sequel, “The Best Man Holiday.” When we last saw these two, Harper proposed marriage to a very shocked Robin. Now its 14 years later and they are happily married and expecting their first child. But while Harper’s previous book “Unfinished Business” proved to be a bestseller, his latest book gets rejected by his publisher. To make matters even worse, he is laid off from his teaching job at New York University, and he doesn’t have the nerve to break the bad news to Robin.

All those concerns get put on hold, however, when Harper and Robin travel to Lance (Morris Chestnut) and Mia’s mansion to celebrate the holidays, and it reunites them with the other characters from the original film. But old rivalries and passions are quickly reignited as Lance has not forgotten about the affair Harper had with Mia all those years ago. Can these two men find it within themselves to forgive one another and move on from their past?

We got to catch up with Diggs and Lathan when they appeared at “The Best Man Holiday” press junket which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Together they talked about what made them decide to do this sequel, how everyone has evolved since the first movie, and what it was like returning to play these characters 14 years later.

Question: For this movie to work, essentially everybody in the original cast had to sign on to do it. At what point did you to decide to do the sequel?

Sanaa Lathan: A couple of years ago, Malcolm actually got us all together and we went to Boa (Steakhouse), and he hadn’t written a script yet and at a loud restaurant with lots of drinks flowing, he literally pitched moment by moment and beat by beat the story. In that environment which is very challenging for a pitch, we were on the edge of our seats and we all at that moment said, “If you write it, we’re gonna do it.” So, for me it was that, and then the script came much later…

Taye Diggs: And then it just became about fine-tuning.

Sanaa Lathan: Exactly.

Taye Diggs: We all obviously had a great time doing the first one. Great friendships and bonds were made and we’ve kept all those friendships, so at this dinner it was so great to see each other just on general principle. It’s great to see old friends that we haven’t seen in a while. I think a couple of us knew possibly what Malcolm was going to come with, and then to actually hear him say it and then to hear the story and then to kind of get together as a group and do what we all needed to do to get this project done and made, it has been a great experience.

Question: How do you think Malcolm has evolved since directing the first movie?

Sanaa Lathan: He actually regressed… No, I’m kidding.

Taye Diggs: I was there every day on set, and good is good. I think we all evolved. We’re all older, we’re all more mature, and we have all had more experience. For me what I noticed this time around, when it pertains to Malcolm, was the outside pressures. I could tell this time around that he had a lot more on his shoulders, so I would say he has evolved in the sense that he was able to deal with a lot more pressure.

Sanaa Lathan: Yeah, and there’s the pressure of the first movie and of living up to it too. That’s a huge pressure.

Taye Diggs: Right and he did it again with a lot more on his shoulders. He had a cast that had experience…

Sanaa Lathan: (We were) very vocal. We tested him a lot and we were having a lot of fun, but we were always like, why? Why are you doing that? I know that we tested his patience but he dealt with it well, right?

Taye Diggs: Yeah. We were all new (at least I was) for the first one, so we weren’t nearly as vocal. But now we have matured as actors and we look at a script differently and challenged him on character and through lines and story structure, so he handled it well.

Question: Taye, have you seen “The Best Man” with your real-life wife?

Taye Diggs: Oh, of course. My wife was at the premiere and was a huge supporter, and hopefully she will enjoy the second one as much or even more than the first.

Question: You all look like you had an absolute blast on this movie. How much fun would you say you had on set?

Sanaa Lathan: They (the men) turned into like seven-year-olds (for the dance sequence). They had dance rehearsal because it wasn’t that simple and Tate has a dance background and Morris has no background. So literally in between takes for weeks they would be like okay, and 5, 6, 7, 8 (laughs). All the girls were so excited. This was like their debut at Alvin Ailey (laughs).

Taye Diggs: I have a stage background. I don’t know if you all know that. For me, stage is a lot more nerve-racking than film acting because no matter what you’re in front of people. With film acting you have control. If we’re shooting an emotional scene and its private you can say I don’t want anybody in the room except for the cinematographer and the director. It’s less nerve-racking doing film, but with this dance sequence Malcolm said, “Be on your stuff because the girls are gonna be watching.”

Sanaa Lathan: The first time we saw it was real-time reactions (laughs).

Taye Diggs: Yes, and there was a level of performance that we had to take into account because we wanted them to think we were good. So, we were nervous, at least I was, and I wanted to make sure that we had the counts and whatnots and it worked. It helped and when we filmed it, seeing them and getting that live, real energy…

Sanaa Lathan: And those reactions that you see in the movie are real.

Taye Diggs: That was great.

Question: Some of the themes in this movie are about unity and brotherhood and sisterhood amongst friends and family. Why do you feel it is so important that we see these images so often for minorities?

Taye Diggs: We don’t see them enough.

Sanaa Lathan: I think it’s important for us to see ourselves reflected in all that we are instead of one type of genre like the over-the-top comedy. It’s really important for the art form of film to reflect the world that we live in and who we are, and I think that it hasn’t really done that for people of color at this time in history.

Taye Diggs: We’ve come a long way but we are still struggling.

Sanaa Lathan: We still have a ways to go, but I think that’s why a movie like “The Best Man” resonates so much because people are hungry for stories that are layered, and they can recognize themselves and their family and friends in the things that they’re going through.

Question: What are the holidays like at your houses?

Taye Diggs: It’s crazy, fun and there’s always a little tension with those couple of family members who always bring something surprising. But growing up I’ve always looked forward to the holidays. Now I got my own little boy so there’s that level of enjoyment and excitement that comes with having a baby, and this Halloween was the first Halloween where he understood what was going on.

Sanaa Lathan: What was he?

Taye Diggs: He was, and he chose this, a zombie Michael Jackson from “Thriller” and he was into it. I had a different take on Halloween this time. I was just loving being able to live through him.

Sanaa Lathan: What were you?

Taye Diggs: I wasn’t anybody because I was so focused on him which is something different. Usually I’m worried about what I’m going to be and dressing up and leaving him with the sitter and partying myself, but this time it was all about Halloween for him. It’s fun. The holidays are fun, and they are way more fun with a four-year-old.

Question: Sanaa, how did playing a pregnant character throughout the entire film affect your craft, and how do you think your character handled being under the same roof with two women who have a romantic history with your movie husband?

Taye Diggs: Usually they ask how it affected me (laughs).

Sanaa Lathan: When Malcolm pitched the idea that I was nine months pregnant, I was (coming from a female vain perspective) like, well damn (laughs). I’m like, the whole movie? And it’s not like three or four months where it’s cute, it’s nine months. But I think that energy and “well damn” is what women feel in their ninth month, so it worked. I had to put on this huge belly that they actually… I did “Blade” where I played a vampire years ago, and the same people that did the prosthetics for “Blade” did my belly, so it was like a real belly. It was heavy, it made me hot and you have to waddle. It was a drag, but it worked for the character. And I realized how sick and sadistic people are. Literally every day, I would get about three punches in the belly out of the blue (laughs). They were just laughing. Malcolm would do it and it was crazy! Something about knowing that it wasn’t real (laughs).

Taye Diggs: We were awful.

Question: How has your real lives paralleled what your characters go through, and how was it coming back after 14 years?

Sanaa Lathan: In terms of the parallel, I tried to be a glass half-full person and I think Robin has always been that especially for Harper. He’s kind of the glass half empty and she’s the glass half-full, and a lot of my friends call me a hippie. I cultivate that mindset to see the bright side of things, and I come from a family of artists and Bohemians in the 70’s so there’s that aspect. But other than that, the reunion was great. It was fun and it didn’t feel like work. We had so much fun in between takes.

Taye Diggs: It helps. I think it shows in the chemistry. You can choose to act it or you can just be real, and obviously it always helps when it’s real. Just being able to hang out socially and look forward to the time when the cameras aren’t rolling as well as the time when the cameras are rolling, it makes the entire experience truly enjoyable. It just worked out. I think we were so blessed, lucky, fortunate or however you want to term it. The fact that we even got everybody together in the first place I think was miraculous, and then to have that type of script and then to have everybody mature the way that they did. We all brought our life experiences to these roles. We’ve all been through our ups and downs, and that has affected us as people and as actors. We were lucky in that we could apply that to these characters.

Question: Sanaa, having grown up with a parent who is a director, has that affected how you approach filming and have you ever worked with your dad?

Sanaa Lathan: You know I’m about to work with my dad. I’m going to do kind of like a cameo thing on “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” I think that’s his show.

Taye Diggs: Oh, I want to do that. You tell him I want to be on it.

Sanaa Lathan: I will. You’d be perfect because you are a real husband of Hollywood. It’s a fake reality show, but Regina (Hill) is going to do it too. I wasn’t really around on set with my dad coming up. He and my mother broke up when I was five so I didn’t see him. He was always in my life but he was always so busy. The sets that I remember going to were “Sesame Street” when I was very young… I don’t know, I just didn’t go to a lot of sets and I have never worked with him. The great thing that I think I have in having parents that have been in the business is that they understand, and I think that’s a very special thing. I realize with a lot of my peers that they don’t have parents who really get what they are going through, and it’s great to have parents that you can lean on when you are going through some stuff.

Taye Diggs: You probably were blessed that you weren’t raised on set. A lot of times kids that have that early exposure end up going down the wrong avenues and you’re fairly sane.

Sanaa Lathan: Thanks!

Question: So, when it comes to your mentors, who would you say have been some of the people you go to for guidance in this industry?

Taye Diggs: For me, it was a very emotional shoot and Sanaa has always been in my life someone who I can bounce stuff off of and she always has really, really great and positive things to say. I have a best friend who is not an actor and we’ve been close since junior high school. No one knows me better than him and he has a good perspective. A lot of times you don’t want to go to someone that knows the business. You want a more accurate kind of view that doesn’t give you a lot of excuses like people in the business do. So yeah, I’ve leaned on him as well.

Sanaa Lathan: You know I get it from everybody, from my parents and I have great girlfriends. I feel like having some really close black actress friends is actually great because it’s such a unique road that we travel. There are so many blessings and so many challenges, but it’s great to have that community because there are days where you don’t want to do it anymore, and it’s great to have that person who is kind of in the trenches who would say to you, get up. So, I get it from everywhere. I don’t really have any one mentor.

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

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.

If You Like ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ Check Out ‘Senna’

Senna movie poster

To call “Senna” a brilliant documentary is not enough. You will get sucked so deeply into the life of motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna to where you will not ever feel like you are watching his life from a distance. It also shows all sides of this man to where he is shown to be complex and unlike any other race car driver in Formula One. His death during a race in 1994 still saddens many after more than a decade, and after watching “Senna” you will clearly understand why.

Director Asif Kapadia really lucked out as he had access to so much footage from Senna’s life both in and out of cars. We have racing footage of course, but there is also home video footage showing him to be a sublime individual and a genuinely nice guy. Kapadia succeeds in making “Senna” feel like we are spending time with a friend and not just another racing superstar.

Compared to others in racing, Senna comes across as being surprisingly humble and shy. No matter how many championships he won, fame never seemed to go to his head, and this is saying a lot. His personality ends up getting contrasted sharply with his fellow racer Alain Prost, and their intense rivalry becomes a big focus here. Prost comes off at first as being very full of himself, particularly while he is being interviews by a female journalist, and we come to see how his biggest strength is also Senna’s chief weakness: mastering the politics of Formula One. It becomes hard not to be on Senna’s side as their rivalry becomes increasingly bitter. While Senna proves to be ruthless on the race track, he is deeply spiritual and not ignorant of the fact he is as mortal as anyone else.

The racing sequences are exhilarating as we watch Senna do things with a race car no one else could. His brilliance while driving in the rain made him especially unique in Formula One, and it is astonishing to learn he never got hurt while driving in this weather. His donations to improve the conditions in Brazil never feels like a publicity stunt, but instead proof of how fiercely loyal he was to his native country.

But the documentary’s most unnerving sequence occurs a day before Senna’s tragic death when fellow racer Roland Ratzenberger was killed on the exact same track at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna becomes deeply upset at what has happened and vows to improve safety on all race courses, something he sadly never got to live to carry out. Watching it feels very eerie as we know the fate which awaits him, and even then, we find ourselves hoping and praying for a different outcome.

What makes “Senna” unlike your average documentary is while most are far removed from their main subject, Kapadia brings you up close and personal. Throughout its running time, Ayrton Senna is alive and not just another dead racer forever relegated to the past. It does not matter in the slightest if you are a fan of car racing or not. “Senna” is as enthralling as the best racing movies ever made as you experience it more than watch it, and it gives us a great respect for this racer even as it leaves us very sad that he left us at such a young age (he was only 34). But seeing him here alive once again gives us a great opportunity to know a man many of us never got the chance to in real life.

So, if you liked “Ford v Ferrari,” be sure to give this one a look. And if you did not like “Ford v Ferrari,” see “Senna” anyway.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: Another great documentary by Asif Kapadia, and it is as great as this one, is “Amy” which serves as a much needed eulogy to the late singer Amy Winehouse.