Director Malcolm D. Lee is best known for the romantic ensemble drama, The Best Man, and its 14-years-later sequel, The Best Man Holiday, which became a surprise box office smash in 2013. Likewise, his 2017 film, Girls Trip, was an even bigger hit, grossing over $140 million, more than seven times its budget of $19 million.
Lee's latest film, the Kevin Hart/Tiffany Haddish vehicle, Night School, successfully grossed over $100 million at the global box office. The film's performance further cemented Hart's status as an A-list star and saw Haddish continue on her own path towards the global domination.
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While promoting the Blu-ray release of Night School (out now!), Lee spoke with us about the film, and how he's spent twenty years earning critical acclaim and financial success from films with predominantly black casts, dispelling the notion that such movies aren't strong performers at the box office. Malcolm D. Lee is on a quest to break down the arbitrary barriers which perpetuate the myth that these movies can't be mainstream hits. Given his track record (to say nothing of films like Black Panther and perennial favorites like Friday and Barbershop, the third entry of which was helmed by Lee himself), it's hard to argue with his results.
Night School is your first time working with Kevin Hart. Were you a fan of his leading up to this? How did you get attached to the film?
I'd been wanting to work with Kevin for a little while now. His stand-up is brilliant, and everything I heard about him was that he was a really good collaborator, and good to work with. (Producer) Will Packer and I had just done Girls Trip, and they were looking for a director to come on board Night School. It was Kevin's first foray into producing, and the story, at first, I didn't love it. I said, "If I'm going to take this on, I'm going to need a writer who can come and brush this up a little bit." I didn't love where it was, but I thought it could be something. I called up my buddy, John Hamburg, who did the Meet the Parents movies, Along Came Polly, and I Love You, Man. We went to NYU together, and had been wanting to work together, and it was fantastic to work with him and bring Kevin's vision to life. So, it was a hard process, because whenever you're rewriting for a production, it's really tough. We made sure we had a bunch of funny people around Kevin; Kevin is funny by himself, and is always a funny guy onscreen, but I wanted to put people around him that could push him and add different kinds of humor in there. We got Romany Malco, Rob Riggle, Tiffany Haddish, Ben Schwartz, Taren Killam, people like that around him. Still, Kevin is in every scene, and when some scenes don't work, Kevin is brilliant, so he'll save the scene, button it for you. He'll take a scene that is kinda funny and make it really funny. It was great to work with Kevin. He's really funny, really collaborative, a really nice guy, and a very hard worker.
This movie has a large supporting cast, and you often work with large ensemble casts; it's almost one of the staples of your work. I especially adore Romany Malco in this movie. He's hilarious.
He's really funny. I'd wanted to work with him for a while, too! I like working with large casts. I love characters. I love interacting the characters with one another, forcing them into situations and then figuring out what character will make something happen. It's tough to shoot, it's tough on the actors to have to run through all the scenes multiple times, and I shoot a lot of coverage, because it's a comedy and I want to make sure I can have a pace and a rhythm to the edit. But I've always loved ensembles, and I've always loved working with actors. But it can get exhausting.
Your movies can be described as comedies, but I think that's reductive. Audiences wept during The Best Man Holiday. Roll Bounce, I think, is this underrated, beautiful coming-of-age movie. Soul Men is all about breaking down macho barriers and getting at the heart of these people. And, sorry to gush, but Undercover Brother, that movie taught so many Millennials that black culture is American culture.
The other day, one of my friends texted me, "The Best Man is on HBO Comedy." I was like, I don't know why they label that movie as a comedy! I never directed that movie as a comedy, I never thought of it as a comedy. The Best Man Holiday, I never thought of as a comedy, either. I think, for me, I'm always going to try to find a level of humanity at the heart of my movies, and emotion that will resonate with audiences. If you care about the characters, you'll be that much more invested, and if it's a comedy, you're going to laugh even harder, because you feel like you know them. That's always been my goal. I've been influenced by filmmakers like John Hughes, Ron Howard, and Woody Allen, people who make a lot of coming-of-age and, just "life" movies. I get a lot of my influences from them, as well as from Spike (Lee, Malcolm's cousin), and some of the other great filmmakers like Spielberg. There's too much to just put into one category. But movies like Night School, Undercover Brother, Roscoe Jenkins, and Girls Trip, I would put in the comedy genre. I wouldn't call them anything else, but they do have a level of... I would say sophistication, or at least trying to be more than just a comedy of sight gags and one-liners.
This sophistication, social awareness, that character... When you're picking a project, do you choose the ones which have that, or do you go, "I can bring that to this project?"
It's a combination. I think, most of the time, it's there, or the potential is there. With Night School, it wasn't there on the page, but I thought, okay, we can bring it to it. Learning disabilities are real. A lot of people suffer through them. Some people suffer through them silently. It's not always apparent in them. I have a son, for instance, who has learning disabilities, but by looking at him, you wouldn't necessarily know; start a conversation with him, and it's different. There's something about that I wanted to portray in Night School. For Girls Trip, we developed that from the ground up, so there was always this idea that we needed to have some heart. For all my movies, I like to have intelligence, heart, humor, and emotion. That's what I tend to gravitate towards.
You've long dispelled the notion that you make, quote-unquote, "black movies," that the characters and situations been to be defined by their blackness before anything else. Like, nobody looks at 99% of Hollywood's output and says, "That's a white movie." Can you say why it's so important for movies with mostly black casts to get wide distribution and reasonable Hollywood budgets?
Our stories are just as important as anyone else's in the world. I mean, Black Panther proved that! It was dressed up in a Marvel movie, but you couldn't get more culturally specific than Black Panther. At the same time, it had universal themes and all the trappings and morays that Marvel movies have. And I love Marvel movies! I think they're fantastic. I think it's slowly starting to push along in a more positive and inclusive way. And it's not just because they think it's the right thing to do, but it's because it makes money! For me, from the beginning of my career, it's always been my goal to make the so-called "African-American movie" mainstream. Our stories are as universal as anyone else's. Anyone should be able to relate. A romantic comedy is a romantic comedy. An action comedy is an action comedy. It's not a black action comedy, or geared towards a black audience. Eddie Murphy was for everybody, right?
There's no reason that The Best Man couldn't be for anybody, or Barbershop couldn't be for everybody. It has cultural specificity, but it has something about it that is universal. Same with Girls Trip. Obviously, that worked. It did not get the kind of accolades it should have from the awards people. Not that we were expecting Best Picture or anything like that, but, I'm sorry; we were the #1 comedy in the world, and the Golden Globes doesn't recognize us? Not cool!
Absolutely. Speaking of Girls Trip, that's the only movie I can think of off the top of my head where the four top-billed actors are black women.
Yup! It's very rare! Probably the last time it happened was Waiting to Exhale. I mean, I'm sure there are others, but to be centered on four women, it's very rare, especially for a studio picture.
I love Regina Hall, so much. She's one of my favorite actors, period, and she's amazing in Girls Trip.
She's my girl! She's fantastic. She's very underrated. But people are beginning to understand how special she is. I've known it for quite some time.
There's hype surrounding The Best Man Wedding, if that's still what it's called. You definitely took your time between the first two movies (part one: 1999. Part two: 2013) From my understanding, the movie's in kind of a holding pattern until everybody's schedule lines up, is that right?
That's pretty much what's happening. That's what's been the problem. Trying to get everybody. It's a large cast, and they're all working, you know?
Yeah, you made them too famous!
Hey, listen, if that's the worst thing that can be said about what The Best Man Holiday did, then I'm happy with that! I'm satisfied with that!
So, is part three written?
It's written. It was written so close after the last one, so we'll have to make some adjustments, but it's kind of ready to go.
I heard that your deal with Night School included a "first look" with Universal. Can you share anything you might be working on from that, or is it still too early?
That was almost a year ago that we've been in our deal with Universal, and we've put a number of things into development. There's Real Talk, a hip-hop ensemble comedy; How to Fall in Love with Anyone is an ensemble romantic comedy; there's a Double Dutch project that's in the vein of Bring it On. There's a Terry McMillan adaptation I'm working on called I Almost Forgot About You for Viola Davis. That's all on the docket so far, and there's plenty of other things happening as well.