June 2002
Ready for an Encore? : An interview with Director Malcolm D. Lee

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Ready for an Encore? : An interview with Director Malcolm D. Lee

It's never easy coming back to the spotlight after achieving success with your first film. In 1999, Malcolm D. Lee's first film THE BEST MAN was widely praised as a good ensemble romantic film. It brought out the best work from Taye Diggs, and Morris Chestnut and boosted the careers of Terence Howard, Sanaa Lathan and many others. Time has passed and Mr. Lee has spent the last year finishing his next picture UNDERCOVER BROTHER. This film is based on the web-animated series of the same name. Produced by Imagine Entertainment, Malcolm came into the film as solely the director and much is expected of him. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Malcolm D. Lee shares his innermost thoughts on the making of the film.

WM: After the critical and financial success of your first film, what did you want to do next and how did this project come to you?

ML: I hadn't planned on doing "Undercover Brother". I was writing a script for Universal that would have been a lateral move from the "Best Man", another relationship picture. I then met Damon Lee, one of the cofounders on Urbanentertainment.com, the site from which "Undercover Brother" was born and had its debut. It was an animated series and I thought it was really funny and irreverent, and just smart. I thought the idea of a blaxploitation hero in the new millennium working for a secret organization, as a spy was a great idea so I had to get involved with it. When I found out Universal was doing it (the film), I approached them and fortunately they were already thinking of me to do it.

WM: Was there less pressure coming into this film solely as a director?

ML: No, I think to me, there is more pressure because being the director for hire, there's a lot more responsibility on you. There's certainly more responsibility on the writers or writer but if you don't create the thing yourself, you have less knowledge about it, sort of speak. If it's not your creation, you won't have that vision that will make it work. That was a little off putting for me in terms of trying to create that vision because it didn't come organically, although I had a pretty strong vision for the movie..

WM: As a screenwriter yourself, did you have to do any tweaking to the script to fit your style of directing?

ML: No, not really, because my style of directing isnít defined as of yet. To me, style is defined by the genre youíre doing. There might be a couple of signature shots or shot Iíve used before that I repeat here, but as far tweaking is concerned, I gave my notes to John Ridley and Michael McCullers along with notes from the studio as well as Imagine Entertainment. We came to an agreement on whatís going to work best. Not everybody knew all the time on what would work. I didnít know all the time. It was a much more collaborated process than the ďBest ManĒ was.

WM: This film is somewhat a departure from the "Best Man", which had some light comedy. Did you think you could handle an all-comedy film, where timing is everything?

ML: Truth be told, I didn't know what I could handle. For me, the most intimidating thing about this movie was the visual effects and the stunts and that's what I was afraid of going into it. If you look at the animated series of "Undercover Brother", the tone is much more satirical and therefore a little more narrow in its scope and who it's going to reach. When you are dealing with a movie like this where a studio is going to put it out in the summer time and they're going to put a fair amount of money into it and they're trying to reach 12 year olds and they're going to have the action set pieces and the visual effects and stuff, there's a lot of money so you have to broaden its appeal. It wasn't until, well into pre-production, that I realized that this isn't a satirical comedy. It's going to have a whole bunch of different types of comedy. I had to learn pretty quickly on how to make it work because in dealing with the "Best Man", because I wrote it, you know where you're going with things. You know what's going to tickle people's funny bones. You know what's going to make them cry and you know what's going to make them react. With this movie, you have a fair idea as what's going to work but you never know until you see it with an audience.

WM: How nostalgic did you want to go back with the black American culture?

ML: My thing was to combine both genres, the blaxploitation era and its hero and the spy era, which included James Bond, Matt Helm and the "In Like Flint" stuff. I looked at a lot of movies from that era. In the 1970s black culture was at its high point. It was a time where black was beautiful and black power and black pride and it meant something. Every black person you saw was your brother or your sister and it kind of went away from that. It was like a culture explosion. It was about the style of clothes, the bellbottoms and the butterfly collars and the big hair and the pork chop sideburns. I wanted to capture all that and make it real and heighten it a bit and make it retro and make sure the stereotype doesn't push the envelope on them. The whole blaxploitation theme came out of brothers rising up against their oppressors. It was about racism. It was about taking it to the man. Mixing it with the spy genre is a political incorrect racial humor.

WM: What can you say about the cast? With so many comediennes (Griffin, Chappelle, and Kattan) on the set, was it difficult to concentrate and not laugh all the time?

ML: No, they did some funny stuff on the set but it was a distraction and it wasn't always funny. A joke might have been funny but I wasn't laughing at the time because we had a lot of work to do. With comediennes, you're always trying to calm them down or settle them because they always try to outdo one another, which is a good thing and a bad thing because what's great about it is in comedy you need a lot of choices in different kinds of taste. Once you do the take you think it should be, then let them do their own take because you don't know what people are going to react to. At the same time, I wanted to keep them in their characters, be true to their characters, and also I let them go too far because it easily could have been a foolish movie that could have fallen flat on its face and it still could fall flat on its face. But judging from journalists who have seen it and audience members, people have seem to like it.

WM: There are some people who might compare this film to "Austin Powers". What do you think is the difference?

ML: We tackle a lot deeper issues than "Austin Powers". The jokes in the "Austin Powers" films are a lot of sex jokes. They do have a level of sophistication that's kind of witty, but I think we tackle harder issues and we're using things that's harder to make jokes out of. They're jokes that people aren't expecting. They're looking for a campy ride and what we throw at them is different and not always talked about. I think that "Undercover Brother" is more risky and risqué than "Austin Powers".

WM: How you have handled your newfound celebrity and success so far? Has it changed your lifestyle?

ML: No. People don't really know who I am. I'm not recognized in the streets or when I go places. Every once in a while someone will recognize me but it's not a big thing. I don't make it a high profile and prefer it that way.

WM: Are you at all concerned about the so-called "Sophomore Jinx"?

ML: With this movie, no. I certainly didn't want to come out with BS for my second film because the "sophomore jinx" is very REAL. If it doesn't perform that's one thing. That still will not matter to me. I still like the movie. It's still good, whether or not it performs well. Whether people come out to support it is another thing. I feel that the movie is good.

WM: As this is your second film, what's more important, the amount is grosses or the critical success of the film?

ML: Either way, if it fails and it's critically lambasted, that would be bad. If it makes a lot of money and critics don't like it; I won't be upset with that. I'd be disappointed to a degree because you always want that approval. I tried hard to make sure this film wasn't your average spoofy kind of comedy. If it's critically successful but doesn't make any money, I'd be disappointed as well but I wouldn't be upset. It is what it is. I kind of let this movie go at this point. I've done all I can to make it good.

WM: What's next for you?

ML: I'm writing a couple of things and I'm still getting some scripts. I'm working on a script for Dimension Films called "Bucked Wild"about these exotic male dancers. I'm trying to see what I can come up with.

WM: Why should anyone see "Undercover Brother"?

ML: 'Cause you are going to have a very good time with this movie. You're are going to laugh. You're are going to like the characters. You're are going to see these actors in ways you have never seen them before. In my opinion, it's Eddie Griffin's best work, Dave Chappelle's best work, Denise Richards's best work, and Chris Kattan's best work. They (the audience) will have a good time and it won't be just popcorn fun. This movie also has something to say.