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Death of a Funeral: Cast and crew talk about bringing the remake to life

Ensemble comedies are always a mixed blessing: as many talented folks as the filmmakers recruit for their cast, there are always a few characters that you want to see explored a little bit more. Thankfully, at the junket for Death at a Funeral, a press event potentially as overstuffed as the film itself, that selfsame cast was provided with plenty of time for everyone to get a chance to chat about the film.

Hollywood News spoke to members of the film’s cast and crew on Sunday at a press conference in Beverly Hills, Calif. In addition to addressing the demands of their individual characters, the cast and crew members of Death of a Funeral – including Zoe Saldana, James Marsden, Columbus Short, Tracy Morgan, Luke Wilson, Regina Hall, and director Neil LaBute – talked about the process of putting together such a great group in order to bring new life to this remake of the 2007 Frank Oz film of the same name.

[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: Neil, what was the genesis of this project, and why did you want to do this film?

Neil LaBute: I guess the genesis for me was twofold. I’d been looking for a comedy for quite some time. Getting people to believe that you are able to do something other than what you’re known for in this town sometimes is difficult. Luckily the effect in this case was that Chris Rock had seen the movie and wanted to make a [version of it] in the States. He’d worked with me 10 years ago, had a good experience and also had been a director in the last few years but wanted to act in terms of the production rather than act and direct. So he was interested knowing that I liked working with actors and scripts. Then I’d also worked with Screen Gems who were putting the film together. I’d done Lakeview Terrace with them, had a good experience and so those were an individual and a company or Clint Culpepper the head of that company who said, “Let’s take a chance on somebody doing something different.” There’s always been humor I think in what I do, sometimes unintentionally frankly, but I had never done a comedy other than Nurse Betty, which had humor and scalpings coexisting. There’s never been just a straight up comedy, so it’s an expensive medium we work in. So to get a chance to do something, people have to say, “I’ll trust you with $15 million, $20 million.” So it’s a big amount of trust. Luckily, I was able to come into this and get a chance to work on what is essentially more flat out comedy than anything I’ve done before. So it already existed as an idea and even a script, and I came in at that point where Chris was really the only person in place at that time.

Hollywood News: Zoe, talk about your scenes with James Marsden and working with this crew. Did they influence you to be funnier?

Zoe Saldana: No, I don’t think I’m funny at all. I don’t want to be, but I just knew that this was going to be an amazing experience. Everything about the concoction of this project was appealing, from Neil Labute to Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover and the rest of all of us coming all the way down. Then I remember asking my team, “Well, who’s going to be playing the crazy boyfriend that’s high on substances?” And they’re like, “Oh, James Marsden.” I’m like, “Oh my God, yes.” It just felt to me like something I’ve never done before and it was a challenge. I saw the first one and I loved it. I’ve seen it like four or five times. Something about it just felt like, “Oh my God, that’s one thing that the entire world has in common, that’s funerals.” And everyone has a crazy family member. It didn’t matter if it was in England or if it was here in America or whatever. It was still, to me, it was going to work and it was hysterical.

Hollywood News: How much of this movie was going off of the script?

Tracy Morgan: Well, I get to work, these are my champions right here so it was like for me, this whole panel is like the dream team. I’m playing with Barkley and Jordan, those guys so I might get a medal. I’ve got my shirt. I’m on the team. When I’m with Martin and Chris, I’m on the team. I might not start, I might not never play. But that’s okay. I’ve got my shirt. I played pro game! So for me, that’s what it was for me. You know what I’m saying? It was the same thing going back to find my inspiration from the gate. From the gate it was just like what first made me want to do it from the jump was Chris and Martin. So now to actually get here and it’s for real now, it’s solidified. I’m in a movie, just for me to be seen, I’m sharing space with these guys so that’s how I feel about it.

Hollywood News: James, we loved your rendition of Amazing Grace. Where did you draw your inspiration?

James Marsden: That was from Chris, I think. That was your addition, wasn’t it? I don’t know, I thought it was funnier if it really was a sincere offering of condolences to Loretta. I remember Zoe and Columbus sitting there going, “You’ve got a voice, man. You’ve got to go for it.” I’m like, “I don’t know if it’s funnier if he can sing. Maybe it’s better if he doesn’t sing well.” “No, no, no. Sing as gospel as you can. Just go for it.” That was like all right, all right. On the last take, I became like inspired.

Hollywood News: Being naked the whole movie, did you worry about catching cold?

Short: I caught the cold.

Marsden: I gave the cold to Columbus. I gave the cold to Columbus’s cheek. No, they kept it nice and warm on set. They wanted me to be comfortable. Yeah, that was fun. I’ve always said, nudity’s not a problem for me but it must be in a comedy. I’d hate to be, I don’t know, there’s something uncomfortable about asking for the audience, to be sincere to the audience or have to take it really seriously and get naked. If it’s for a joke, I’ll do it I guess.

Hollywood News: You never had any doubts or qualms?

Marsden: No, because I knew it was funny. I read the script on a flight from New York to LA and I didn’t know that there had been a British film already made so I just thought it was this great original kind of chamber piece about all the stuff that takes place at this funeral. I just thought the character was rich and I just kept reminding myself of what this guy has to endure unbeknownst to him and involuntarily. It was just always funny to me so I didn’t think twice about taking it off.

Hollywood News: Regina, where do you find your humor alongside these guys?

Regina Hall: Well, I was very excited to see the movie. I’d never worked with any of these four so I’ve watched all of them, all these three guys literally. I watched Martin every episode. I was like, “God, I can’t tell him. He’ll be like, ‘She’s stalking me.’” Chris I loved, Tracy on Saturday Night Live so I’ve been a fan [of his] too, but I have to say they’re really giving and generous so to work with them was pretty easy.

Hollywood News: Luke, can you compare this comedy to others you’ve done?

Luke Wilson: I don’t know, just I like the idea that it was a big ensemble and the fact that Neil was directing. Yeah, you hear that these three guys are going to be in it, it’s just an unbelievable trio. I always think about like a few years ago I was down in the Caribbean. I went to this little island. I walked on the island and everybody was like, “Blue Streak!” Martin and I had done this movie, everybody down there, that was like their favorite movie. I told a friend, “Wait until you see the reaction I get when you walk on this island. It’s like ‘Blue Streak, Martin, his idiot partner, this is the guy!’” So I thought if I could work with all these guys, I could go back and like run for mayor on one of these islands. No, I just love the idea of working with all these guys, all these people and a funny part in something, I don’t know if it’s different, but it definitely was a part that appealed to me.

Hollywood News: Tracy, is it easier or more fun to work in an atmosphere like this as opposed to Cop Out where you’re front and center?

Morgan: For me it was easier because the pressure is really off. You realize that, coming from Saturday Night Live, I worked with all these people so when you have all these people, you know you’re not doing it by yourself. You don’t have to do it so you don’t feel the pressure. Everybody else, we all know our roles in it. It was just bring who you are. Bring your bag of funny and that was it. There’s no pressure for me to hold the whole movie. I’m working with these guys so that’s how it was. You learn to win. You learn that from Michael Jordan. In his first six seasons, he couldn’t win a championship because you’ve got to use your other teammates. That’s what it was. He learned to win once he discovered Scotty and Horace Grant and all those guys so it was a team. Yeah, it wasn’t me, Tracy Morgan movie. This was Death at a Funeral so it was easier.

Hollywood News: James, how much was on the page and how much did you create in the moment? Zoe, did anything he did surprise you?

Marsden: I had to apologize to Zoe before every take actually because I said, “Zoe, I’m sorry but will you just indulge me? I’m going to try something.” And she said, “Stop it, stop it, stop it. You’re on acid. Do your thing.” The script was always really, really strong and we always went in and did what was scripted because it was great. It was flawless but I thank Neil for this but he afforded me a certain amount of creative license to have this balance of going in prepared but also allowing yourself to remain relatively obtuse or open to finding things throughout the day. So it was a great environment to go in. I was definitely allowed to find things that maybe weren’t necessarily always there, but you had to be open to that to be out there in space like I was.

Saldana: The funniest thing that Jimmy did that wasn’t so funny, but it kind of was too, was that the scene where he’s supposed to be completely naked on the rooftop and I’m supposed to open the window and go, “What are you doing? Come back inside. Blah blah blah.” He didn’t give me any warning that he had taken off his pants. So I’m talking with Luke inside and then Neil yells, “Action.” I open the window and said, “What?” I’m just like, “Look at his eyes.” I just kept looking at his face. I was just, I could’ve been prepared to know that he was going to be naked so I felt really – it’s awkward. You’re embarrassed, he’s embarrassed and then they yell cut and I yell at him. I’m like, “Next time if you don’t tell me I’m going to punch you. I just need to be ready.” He’s like, “Thank you so much. You were such a gentleman. You kept looking at me in my eyes.” I wouldn’t look down.

Marsden: I wasn’t embarrassed.

Hollywood News: Columbus, James and Tracy, did you really touch?

Short: Yes, I really touched his dangle. The thing about it is it’s funny because I’m not going to say any names but Buke Bilson rhymes with didn’t want to do it.

Wilson: It’s not that I didn’t want to do it. I had a charity event that day (laughs).

Short: So Neil came to me so, so like cocky saying, “Look, Columbus. You wanna, you wanna?” And I said yeah, of course. I’d seen James for a month and a half at that point just making a fool out of himself every day throwing himself out there. Why wouldn’t I do it? It was aggressive. It was aggressive. Like “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.” I didn’t want to touch you. I didn’t want to be touched and I’m going to be honest, guys, and I’m a completely heterosexual male, he’s packing a nice little [package]. I’m like, “Is your mother’s name Juanita?”

Hollywood News: Tracy, was your hand really down there?

Morgan: It was. I’m a method actor. It was real poop. It was everything. He ate some pork and beans and franks. Chris and Neil slipped him some Ex-Lax so the old man went hard on me. Went hard, you know. And he had a bit of chicken loaf.

Hollywood News: Luke, how much concentration did it require to play straight?

Wilson: I’ve worked with funny guys before, guys like Will Ferrell so you are conscious of trying to concentrate because you never want to start to laugh during scenes because you will ruin a take. The problem is you get people like Tracy. They see it start in your eyes that you’re going to laugh and then they just start driving you. I would do a thing where if you were Tracy, I’d just kind of look off to the side and be waiting because I’m just waiting for my lines, not even listening to what he’d say just so I could get through the scene. Yeah, you’ve got to focus because these guys are so funny and the script was good and the stuff they’d add was really funny too. So you never want to ruin something.

Hollywood News: How did you blend your personas and make everything work so well?

LaBute: you have people who have gifts in various areas. They started out in standup comedy, became comic actors and they’re just really actors. So they gravitate toward a part and they want to play that part. Not that they can’t do beyond what’s on the page. They can riff for 20 minutes and get right back into, I think Tracy occasionally would go and do something that was so funny, and then you’re listening to it thinking, “I think he just said he was molested. We can use that for the character.” Then he would go back to the script and on we would go. One of the great things, I thought, in terms of everybody was the fact that we shot on video. It allowed people to just work and never have to be stopped by the crew running out of camera, hair in the gate, none of the stuff that can happen when you shoot on film. I think the personalities here really threw everything at a take one after the other until they had nothing left to give. Chris would say, “I’m done. I’ve got nothing.” It’s like I’ve given every idea I can throw at this. So you don’t want to be the one to say, “Oh, sorry, we have to cut” and try to get that scene back up. so I think the atmosphere was just they created one. People tended to stay on set. We even put a green room on set where actors could go and stay rather than go to the trailers. So people wanted to see what other people were doing and I think that’s part of what comedy is, getting an immediate reaction from people and your first audience are the people who you’re working with. So you get a sense of how the character is working by what you’re doing.

Wilson: I was around so much on the lot just because I wanted to be around these guys, people thought that I was lying about being in the movie. I’d go up, I’d watch these guys work, go walk around, visit friends. “Luke says he’s working on this Death at a Funeral, but we never see him on the set.”

About Todd Gilchrist

Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist. Over the past decade he worked at a variety of online and print publications, including the Miami New Times, Filmstew.com, SCI FI Wire, and IGN.com, where he wrote reviews, conducted interviews with actors and filmmakers, and edited Movies, DVD and Music content. He currently works for Cinematical.com among other outlets, and has been a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association since 2005.

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One Comment

  • April 13, 2010 | Permalink |

    With this cast, Death at a Funeral could be Dead On Arrival.

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