Soul Men director Malcolm D. Lee talks up his love of ’70s soul music and bids a fond farewell to his movie’s star, Bernie Mac.
It’s safe to say that Malcolm D. Lee never expected his unassuming road trip comedy Soul Men to become a big news story. But that’s exactly what happened when Bernie Mac, who stars in the film alongside off-screen pal Samuel L. Jackson, died suddenly last August, two months before the movie was scheduled to hit screens. Lee admits that the loss hit him hard, but it also strengthened his resolve to “do the picture right.”
GIANT: What road movies did you watch to prepare for Soul Men?
Malcolm D. Lee: Oh, all of them: The Blues Brothers, Thelma and Louise, Midnight Run. I also watched movies like Ray and The Doors to see how they filmed onscreen musical performances. Since we knew we were going cross-country on the trip, I had to know how we were going to sell that. And I think we did a decent job in the movie. As I explain on the commentary track, I hated doing the scenes we shot on greenscreen. Those plates were just awful, but I had no control over them. I learned my lesson on that one—it’s a road movie, so I want to make it look right. Otherwise, why am I making a road movie?
GIANT: One of the things that seems to distinguish you from your cousin Spike Lee as a director is that you actively encourage improvisation in your films.
Lee: I’ve mainly directed comedies and in comedy, you have to encourage improv. Even if whatever is written on the page is as fresh as that morning, the actor or comedian saying those words is going to know what’s funny. So I always encourage funny people to do funny things. When you go into the editing room, it’s the worst feeling in the world to have only one version of a joke. Because if it doesn’t play, its gotta go. But if you have some options, you have room to play and save that scene and that joke.
GIANT: Based on the soundtracks for your films, including this one, you’re clearly a fan of ’70s soul music.
Lee: Music has always played a big role in the films I’ve made and three of them have had a very strong ’70s element to them. On this movie in particular, I wanted to find the best mix of entertaining songs that no one had heard of before. I don’t know how many people have heard the song “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin'” but it’s a great song that Rufus Thomas created back in the day with Stax. I thought it would be great fun to play that song in the scene in the Texas bar. Certain artists from Stax get a lot of attention but there are a lot more that don’t get their due.
GIANT: Does it bother you that your films tend to find a bigger audience on DVD rather than in theaters?
Lee: It’s a little frustrating in that regard, but thank god for DVD! Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins, the other movie that I made in 2008, is now all over HBO and I keep getting calls saying “Oh my God it’s so funny!” And I’m like, “Why didn’t you see it when it came out in February?” [Laughs] But hey, I’m happy that they’re seeing it however they’re discovering it and hopefully they can see my next one in theaters.
GIANT: Glad to see that Roll Bounce has picked up a strong following on DVD. That movie definitely deserved to be a bigger hit.
Lee: We had a lot of fun making that movie. It was tough, especially since we had a cast of horny teenage boys and a bunch of young extras around! [Laughs] They had no attention span whatsoever. But it was a great experience. The studio tanked it—no support out there.
GIANT: Since you directed Undercover Brother, are you looking forward to that new blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite, which just premiered at Sundance?
Lee: That movie actually looks a little funnier [than Undercover Brother] to me. If I had had my way, I would have made my film a little more like that, a little more biting and over the top in its satire. Brother was more like an Austin Powers-style spoof, whereas Black Dynamite looks like an homage. Undercover Brother was a pre-strike movie that was rushed into production and the script wasn’t quite right. They wanted to make a very broad movie, but having seen the Internet cartoon, I knew it was a little different.
GIANT: Hate to end the interview on a downbeat note, but what was your immediate reaction when you learned of Bernie Mac’s death? And how difficult was it to finish the movie under those circumstances?
Lee: My most immediate feeling was sadness that Bernie died before he had a chance to see it. On top of that, the movie talks about people getting sick and dying, so we weren’t sure how we were going to handle that aspect of the material. But time passes and people start to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. I didn’t watch the movie in its entirety for about a month [after Bernie's death]. Then I saw it and I was very saddened at times watching him and knowing he was gone. But I’m glad we were able to do that tribute to him. He was a great, great guy and will definitely be missed. We lost a good one there.
Soul Men is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. Watch the trailer below and read GIANT’s interview with Spike Lee here.
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