Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Neil LaBute discuss ‘Death at a Funeral’
By Todd Gilchrist
HollywoodNews.com: Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence are two of the biggest comedians working in film today. In fact, it seems like they scarcely need film in order to further their careers, given the fact that they can still sell out shows across the globe performing as stand-ups. All of which is why their new film together, Death at a Funeral, registers as a unique benchmark in both of their careers. In the movie, a remake of the 2007 comedy of the same name, Rock and Lawrence play estranged brothers who reunite uneasily at the funeral of their father, and the duo combine their individual talents to create a singularly hilarious portrait of family dysfunction.
On Sunday, Hollywood News spoke to Rock and Lawrence, along with director Neil LaBute, about their work on the film. In addition to discussing the prospect of not wanting to make a purely “black” version of Frank Oz’ 2007 film, the duo talked about their own creative inspirations, and offered a few insights into what keeps them stimulated on the silver screen.
[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]
Hollywood News: Chris, is there such thing as “black” comedy?
Chris Rock: Is there black comedy? I mean, there’s comedy that black people do. To me, it’s all just comedy, to tell you the truth. I consider myself in the same line – – there’s Richard [Pryor] and Eddie [Murphy] and [Bill] Cosby, but I’m also a descendant of George Carlin and Rodney Dangerfield and all those guys like that. So I just mix it all up. When I was a kid, we didn’t think Rodney Dangerfield was a funny white guy. We just thought he was a funny guy.
Hollywood News: Is this a record for remaking a film so soon? Did you think it might take longer and why did you think it would suit the American palate?
Rock: I saw the movie, one of the reasons I wanted to remake it, I saw it in an art house. I saw it like in a little theater, The Angelika, whatever with like 10 people. Something to me just said this is like a pop movie. Why is this playing at an arthouse? Me and the other 10 people are laughing our asses off. Have you ever been in a theater with no people, “Waaaaa” just laughing. Because you normally need other people around to get rid of your inhibitions, but we didn’t care. It was amazing.
Hollywood News: Did you think it would take longer to make it? And why did you think it would work with an American sensibility?
Rock: I just thought the jokes would work in America. I thought you watch a lot of the movies out right now, comedies, we’re not doing a lot of one-guy comedy right now. A lot of things are collaborations, something like Date Night right now, or The Hangover is like a bunch of people. So I thought the fact that it had a lot of funny parts was perfect for me, not wanting to have to carry a whole movie. And also perfect, something a studio would really be into. So I thought it would work that way.
Hollywood News: Who is responsible for such outstanding casting? What was the criteria?
Rock: Clint Culpepper. I mean, Clint’s the man. I didn’t know Columbus. I didn’t know James. Clint’s like, “They’re in your movie.” I was like okay. But when we got Neil, a lot of actors really were like, “Oh yeah, I definitely want to work with Neil.” But when people started hearing Martin was doing it, it was like, “Oh, yeah!” It was like, “Oh, sh*t!” Tracy signed up but once Martin got on, it was like, “I’ve got to get in there! Don’t do that movie without me.” Once we got Martin, it was another movie.
Hollywood News: Martin, after doing Roscoe Jenkins, what made you want to do another ensemble comedy?
Martin Lawrence: Well, my man Chris Rock gave me a call personally and when he first called, I was like, “Uh, sorry, Chris. I can’t do that.”
Rock: I didn’t have a lot of money when I called him the first time.
Lawrence: But then he sent me the British version and I thought it was very funny. Then when he told me it was about playing his brother, I just said I’ve got to be on board. Me and Chris we see each other probably every year and we’ve always talked about working together, working together. He came on the Martin show, I went on his show on HBO. We just finally got a chance to really do a movie together and it’s because he put it together so I’ve got to give my man the credit for that.
Rock: And I’ve got to give Clint and Michael London the credit for getting Martin’s money. Martin was like, “It’d be a lot funnier if I had some money.” I respect that. Taught me how to negotiate. This script, boy, if you had a few million dollars, this script would be amazing.
Hollywood News: Martin, how does it make you feel that everyone is drawn to a film with you?
Lawrence: It makes me feel good. For your peers to respect what you do and respect that you can bring something to it makes me feel good. Puts pressure on me to deliver, but I’ve been doing that my whole career so I look forward to it and I’m very appreciative and thankful to have been a part of it.
Hollywood News: Chris and Neil, is it more or less challenging to remake a movie than create something from scratch?
Neil LaBute: For me I would say it’s a bit of each.
Rock: Yeah, it’s a bit of each. I’ll say this. When you know a movie’s ending works, your life’s so much easier. It doesn’t make the rest of the movie not difficult in parts but boy, when you know. I’ve remade a few movies and they all have one thing in common, great endings. If you’re going to remake something, make sure that ending was tight. I would say it’s a little less challenging if you have a great ending. If you don’t have a great ending, don’t remake the movie.
LaBute: You know you’re climbing the same mountain but you want to find a new way to do it as well. You want it to be your own and yet, especially in this case, I think everyone went into it who had seen it really loved it. There was no sense of oh, we can make this better. It’s just we’re going to make it our own. It’s a whole different kind of family. The temperature was already 80 degrees above where this very reticent English family starts in the original. So if the temperature’s here, we wanted to keep that temperature going all the time, ratcheting up the humor. So how do you find those moments? And take big ensemble people. For me, the only drawback of the original is I think a few people are slighted along the way, some of the actors. I think to a person, those that were slighted in the original have much more to do and are funnier as characters in this particular version. And you have a lot to stand up for because people look at the first one as we do and are appreciative and say, “That’s really funny. Why are you remaking it?” Well, for a variety of reasons so I think you do have that to live up to as well. That is a challenge.
Hollywood News: Back to casting, was this intended to be a black version of the film?
Rock: I don’t know. It’s weird. I mean, I was the lead I guess. I mean, I was Aaron and I’m black. Okay, it’s me, Martin and Tracy. Can you name three white comedians that more white people would come and see? I’ll outsell any white guy. If I said no black people can go see me next week in LA, I would still sell more tickets. So I just consider myself a comedian. I’m a black man and I’m down for the struggle, but I’m a comedian. I’m a comedian. When you say black, it’s like a movie for a certain amount of people. I’ve seen Martin Lawrence in front of thousands and thousands of white people.
Hollywood News: It’s a black family.
Rock: Yeah, it’s a black family but it’s just when you say it that way, sometimes it feels like it’s smaller. He’s a black guy in Big Momma’s House but would you call that a black movie?
Hollywood News: Yes.
Rock: Really? I hope we make that kind of money. Can’t win.
Hollywood News: Martin, what projects is your company Runteldat interested in? Why aren’t you producing major films yourself?
Lawrence: I just started that, but Runteldat, we’re interested in producing anything that’s good, anything that brings the moolah. I don’t know, a lot of things that I’m reading just doesn’t feel worth putting my name on. I’m not going to just produce something just for the sake of producing. I met so many producers in this game and all that and so many people are just faking the funk. They’re not even delivering. They just want the title to walk around Hollywood to get cocktails just to say they’re doing. So if I do it, I want to do it because it’s something I believe in. I believe it’s something that has a potential to be successful and those are the projects that I get behind.
Hollywood News: Chris, did this film resonate on a personal level, since you’ve lost a father?
Rock: I guess I went there a little bit. My father to the best of my knowledge never f*cked a midget. Let’s hope he didn’t. You know what’s weird. I remember one draft of the script, yes, I definitely thought about my father and giving a eulogy. I didn’t give the eulogy at my dad’s funeral but I definitely went there a little bit mentally, yes.
Hollywood News: To the film’s credit, none of the jokes are at the expense of Peter Dinklage’s character’s size. How careful did you have to be to make sure you don’t make fun of his height?
Rock: There’s like two. I mean, me and Neil we talked about it a lot.
LaBute: We never really wanted to be – – we actually liked the fact that every time they refer to him it’s “the guy in the leather jacket” or “the dude who was over by the coffin.”
Hollywood News: Chris, is there anything else you’d like to remake?
Rock: I’m getting ready, I’m writing a movie actually for Mike Nichols. I’m doing High and Low, getting that together now. That’s a remake of a Kurosawa thing. That may be next, I’m not sure.
Hollywood News: Was Tony Cox not available for the Dinklage role?
LaBute: This may be one of the first remakes that actually has an actor repeat his very role. We gave him sort of the rough trade version of the original. We gave him a leather jacket and grew a little bit of a bear and he had a slightly nastier attitude to going after the money. But I thought it was a very inspired idea in the first place. As I understand it, it was Frank Oz’s idea in the first place to have that character played by Peter. We thought it was kind of a genius idea to have him come back. It’s always nice to have a nod toward the original. That was a pretty clear one.
Rock: We actually read Tony Cox. Clint always had this trailer line in his head about “So let me get this straight. Dad was having sex with a midget and you’re mad ‘cause he’s white?” So Clint’s like, “I don’t care what you do, but you better make sure you can say that line.” It was Clint. It was Clint and Neil brought up Dinklage, I remember that but Clint had this line. He was locked to this line. I think we had to go back and shoot it, like we didn’t even shoot it at first. Clint made us come back to the set.