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Let’s make it funnier


Chris Rock comes into the Presidential Suite at the Hyatt Regency in Washington DC. His “people” are already there, the people who set up his schedule and look out for him. It’s a little past 7am, and they’re in the midst of a jag across country to promote Rock’s new movie, Down to Earth, a jag that includes filming an MTV Diary episode over three days, a weekend junket in New York, and visits to several cities to talk to people and tell them how much he likes this new movie. And he does like it. He says that a few times, and encourages me to see it with an audience, because “it annihilates.”


Rock talks fast, while eating his breakfast of pancakes and sausages. He says that he chose this PG-13 romantic comedy as his first starring vehicle because he immediately felt comfortable with it, even though at first he didn’t know its history, that it’s a remake of Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which is in turn a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Rock wrote the script with Ali Le Roi, Lance Crouther, and Louie CK, his Chris Rock Show collaborators.



Cynthia Fuchs:

Why did you choose this particular remake as a means to PG-13 stardom?



Chris Rock:

The first time I saw this movie was two years ago, and I started writing the script a week after I saw it. I never had a sense of the history, and I guess that helps me out. When I saw the movie, I thought, “Man, Richard Pryor would have been great in this.” It was like a woman walking into an empty house, and knowing, “The couch goes here, the drapes go there.” I could see where all the jokes went.



CF:

You worked with your writers from The Chris Rock Show on the script. Is that standard procedure for you, working closely with writers?



CR:

Yeah. It was like a pick-up game of basketball. Some parts we just sectioned off—like Louie wrote most of the Chazz [Palminteri] stuff. We wrote it while we were doing the show, so we handled it like the show.



CF:

Do you miss the show?



CR:

Yeah, I do. I’ll really miss it come September, when we would have come back. You know, Puff Daddy on trial, Jesse got some girl pregnant, stuff going on that’s ripe for me.



CF:

How did you meet Wanda Sykes [a comedian from the show, co-starring as a maid in Down to Earth].



CR:

It was weird, Wanda opened at my last club gig. It was just one of those things—next thing I know, we’re doing the show and I said, we need to get her. That’s how I met the guys I write with. Ali and Lance opened up for me; Louie, I knew from the circuit. I watch the opening acts. I pay attention.



CF:

How did you come to work with the Weitz brothers [Chris and Paul] for this film?



CR:

Somebody from the studio showed me American Pie. I was looking at a lot of movies, trying to hire a director. The fucking a pie, I could do without, but I liked the rest of American Pie; there was a sweetness to it, in the relationship between the football player guy and the glee club girl and other places. Plus, as soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to make a ton of money. I knew they were going to be hot, and they would help me get more money for this project, to get it made, to be able to film it in New York, to get the quality of co-stars, like Chazz, Mark Addy, or Regina King.



CF:

How was it to transfer the working dynamic from the show to the process of making a film? I have this vision of you all in a room, just cracking each other up.



CR:

It was actually easier, because we knew the structure, more or less. There were parts we just discarded, like the murder investigation. But since we knew the structure, it was all about the characters and the jokes. We just thought, “Let’s make it funnier, let’s make it more romantic.” It’s kind of like Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor. Only people that know you, know how you’re funny. We wrote a lot, but to tell you the truth, most of the jokes were written in the first two days. So, since Warren Beatty had this huge goal in his movie, we made my huge goal to play the Apollo. And while his character wasn’t really likeable—I mean, he’s the quarterback—we thought, my guy was going to really suck, to want so badly to be good, to have smaller goals.



CF:

How are you thinking about this move to more solidly mainstream vehicles?



CR:

To me, it’s all mainstream. I mean, if I have the biggest special on HBO, that must be mainstream. But with the move to romantic comedy, the genre doesn’t lend itself to R ratings. And really, for the Weitz brothers, even though they didn’t know it at the time, the best thing for them to do next was something PG. That’s the only way they were going to succeed.



CF:

You’re very savvy about the business—is that something you work at?



CR:

Well, yeah, when you’re a black guy doing the crossover thing, there’s no blueprint for it. You can talk to Eddie, and you can talk to Cos, but it hasn’t been done a lot. So you have to really know what you’re doing, to think everything out. For this movie, I talked to Cosby a lot, who actually owned the rights to it for a while. He and Francis Ford Coppola. Warren Beatty actually wrote Heaven Can Wait for Muhammad Ali, and he told me, when I was already in pre-production, it’s a better movie for a black guy, point blank. And I talked to Cosby because you gotta get prepared. On movies, it’s arguments and fights and everybody’s got an opinion. Studios are huge, they waste so much money, on so many people doing so little. There are six execs on one movie, none of ‘em can write, but they all got notes. You have to fight through all of them, and not get beaten up and have this homogenized product.



CF:

Sounds like fun. Why are you doing this again?



CR:

[Laughs.] One of the reasons the movie turned out good is because of one savvy thing I did do, which was to have me and Lance, Louie, and Ali write it for free. We didn’t make the deal until we had written the script. That way we wrote the movie we wanted to write, rather than sell the idea and end up writing with mail room people, essentially. Then it would have been all watered down. But it’s weird, this is a better movie than I had set out to do.



CF:

That doesn’t happen often.



CR:

It does not happen often, but it did for me, with Bring the Pain. For that, my only goal was, I hope enough people like this, so that when I play a club, I don’t have to do radio. That was my goal, to not have to get up at 7 in the morning and go to the radio station to sell three hundred seats. And if the club owner puts me up in a hotel, and not the Comedy Condos—that was my goal.



CF:

So now you have a different goal, to sell yourself in this genre?



CR:

I like the genre, actually, you wouldn’t know it from my stand-up. I’d rather watch When Harry Met Sally... or Annie Hall. I could watch Manhattan once a week. Woody is more my idol than anyone else. I like working on relationships. If you think about it, in my stand-up, the relationship hunk is always the biggest hunk, the meat.



CF:

As I’m sitting here, I realize that I’m so used to seeing you interview other people. How is it to be on the other side?



CR:

I’m used to it, I’ve actually been interviewed way more than I’ve done them. I can rate the interviews now—I know all about them. I know how to trick people into saying stuff. Ego’s a great thing, if you push somebody into a corner, their ego always gets the better of ‘em and make ‘em say shit that you can’t believe.



CF:

What do you make of the big deal made over the summer movies, with the Wayans’ and Martin Lawrence’s big hits?



CR:

To lump Eddie Murphy in that is ridiculous. He’s the biggest comedic star in the world. Nobody—no two white funny guys—have made movies that have made more money than Eddie Murphy. So I think that’s just racist when people write that, about Eddie Murphy making an African American hit movie. No, he’s Eddie Murphy! And Martin Lawrence, big tv star—his success in movies is no different than Michael J. Fox making hit movies. Now, the Kings of Comedy, that’s a big story. Bernie Mac is incredible. That’s success, that movie.



CF:

It seems hard now to just do one thing—singers act and tv people do movies and movie people sing.



CR:

Well, they let you do anything, and it’s like sex, you try all the positions. There’s no lines anymore. The only pressure is that there are certain things you can only do at certain points in your life. You gotta do movies when you’re hot. There’s a set time in your life when you can be a movie star. For me, I had to do a movie now, or it wasn’t going to happen. You gotta jump on it.



CF:

Does that mean you aren’t going to sing on a record?



CR:

Never gonna happen. But to me, everything I do is all comedy. This is just an extension. It’s not like I have a clothing line. I can’t sew. I’ll keep doing stand-up, but first I have to do an action movie called Black Sheep, Jerry Bruckheimer, Anthony Hopkins, and Joel Schumacher. I don’t have to do much, just stand in my spot and not get blown up. Action and comedy, very Lethal Weapon-ish. But the next tour, it’s the Black Ambition Tour, around the world, which I want to film. I want to end in front of a black audience in South Africa.



CF:

How do you know when a show is ready to film it?



CR:

You just know. You get cocky on stage. You feel like Mick Jagger, and you just did “Start Me Up,” and you know you’ve got “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in your back pocket.



CF:

Did you always have that feeling, you knew when it was ready?



CR:

No, just these last few years. I guess when I was working out the Bring the Pain thing, I broke through a wall. I learned how to write, how to use my voice and performance. So, you’re playing the clubs, and one day. It’s quite obvious that you won’t be playing the clubs again, to the audience. The movie plays like that, it plays like my stand-up, joke-joke-joke-joke-story-joke-joke-joke-story-joke-joke. I’ve got a confidence in writing now that I never had before. It’s not that idiotic confidence where anything goes. I’ll still rip up a page in a second. But now I can go into a place I was never able to go into before.



CF:

Comedy seems hard, because you’re putting so much of yourself out there.



CR:

Well, I am. But that’s because I don’t have a great imagination. So I have to talk about real things.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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