Malcolm D. Lee returns to write and direct, “The Best Man Holiday,” the sequel to his groundbreaking directorial debut, “The Best Man,” about a group of college friends named Harper, Lance, Mia, Shelby, Murch, Robyn, Jordan, Quentin and Candy. In the almost 15 years since the comedy was shot and released, the nine principal performers have gone on to build enviable careers, yet there has long been talk of returning to these beloved characters. Now the gang is finally back together. Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Regina Hall, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Harold Perrineau, Monica Calhoun and Melissa de Sousa reprise their career-launching roles in the long-awaited next chapter opening in theaters November 15th.
At the film’s recent press day, Lee talked about making a movie that deals with life and death issues, what it is about the characters that remains so resonant and relatable after all these years, why the sequel is a departure from the original and stands on its own, how he used social media to generate buzz for the project, why he’s happy there are black movie choices out there now that aren’t just for African American audiences, why he’s willing to take risks to avoid predictability, and why it’s important to be strategic and business-minded about getting projects off the ground.
Q: First of all, congratulations on a fantastic movie.
MALCOLM D. LEE: Thank you.
Q: What do you think it is about this cast and this cast of characters that have been so resonant that a decade later people are really hungry to see them again?
LEE: In the eighties, there was the Brat Pack, and this is the Black Pack. This is a collection of really talented actors who embodied their role so thoroughly in the first movie. It was a movie that spoke to a generation of African American people who were educated, who were sophisticated, who were going to college, had had experiences, and didn’t define themselves as strictly black. They had the specificity of being African American, but they were just doing every day American things and having American ideals. That was refreshing for audiences who hadn’t seen themselves like that on the big screen. And they have since, but it’s been a little bit different than this one. I think that it’s a movie that stood the test of time. It had rotation on BET and HBO for years. It’s very gratifying because that’s what I intended to do. I intended to make a movie that would be regarded as a classic. Over the years, they’ve been saying, “Hey! Do a sequel.” I didn’t want to do one right away. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an artist. I wanted to be able to have other stories to tell. I wanted to live some life, and I wanted these characters to live some life. I thought there might be an audience that was ready to see these characters again, maybe 10 or 12 years later, and tackle some new territory. The first movie was inspired by “The Big Chill” and that was a reunion of college friends. It’s funny. Even watching that movie when I was very young, I guess 13 or 14 when that movie first came out, I didn’t quite understand. Every time I saw that movie, it revealed something new to me about the characters and what they were going through. I didn’t even focus on the fact that it was a funeral that they were coming together for. Again, it was “The Big Chill,” “Diner,” bring these characters together, but for a wedding. With this, I thought this is really going to be inspired by “The Big Chill.” The first one was a wedding. This one is a funeral. What’s great is that I don’t think anyone knew it was coming. I love that it’s been that way.
Q: At what point in the process do you determine who is going to die?
LEE: It was an easy decision. It’s the one who’s going to garner the most sympathy. It was so funny, too. I remember over the years I’d see the cast, and people would say, “We hear you’re doing a sequel” and I’d say, “Yeah. I’m doing a funeral.” I remember I was here [at this hotel] and I saw Terrence Howard on the treadmill and he was like, “Better not be Quentin!” (Laughter) I said, “It’s not going to be Quentin. Don’t worry.”
Q: With “The Butler,” “Fruitvale,” and “12 Years a Slave,” and “Scandal” with a terrific female lead, what would you say in terms of Hollywood? Are black films going to get the green light? Is the money rolling in?
LEE: We’ve seen these kinds of things before, but what’s different this time… I’ll say when Spike came out with his movies, it was like everyone was coming out to a Spike Lee movie. Then it was John Singleton making “Boyz in The Hood” and all these hood movies that followed. And then, there was “Waiting to Exhale” and “Love Jones” and “The Best Man” and a slew of black romantic comedies. And then, there were a couple that just didn’t work and they said, “We’re not making these movies anymore. Forget it.” So now, here’s opportunity, and what’s great about this and is different this time is there is a greater diversity of product. I mean, from “42” to “Fruitvale” to “12 Years a Slave” to “The Butler,” “Baggage Claim,” and “Black Nativity” coming out, there’s just a slew of choices out there for an African American, and it’s not just African American audiences. It’s for audiences. This should be the norm. We should just keep going with the quality and the diversity of work. We should have choices like everyone has at the movies. General movie audiences should be able to go to “The Best Man Holiday” like they go to “The Butler” and they go to “12 Years a Slave,” and say, “Okay. You know what? These are people. These are human beings. There’s humanity here.” So I hope that it continues. What could happen is that the studio will say, “Well hey, we can make a ton of these,” but then the product starts to water down. And then, it’s going to be like you make one or two bad movies or a movie that doesn’t perform, and forget it. Nobody wants to see this again. I liken it to the NFL with black quarterbacks or black head coaches. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to root for that team.” You get every black person in America to root for Doug Williams to win the Super Bowl in the 80s because he’s the black quarterback. And they didn’t believe in black quarterbacks, but now it’s okay. There’s a slew of black movies. Don’t just go for the black movie. Just support the movie that you like. And they have to be up to par.
Q: Malcolm, to avoid predictability in the product also involves taking some risk. You took a risk with combining love, laughter, loss and growth. Was that a part of your journey as well between these two films?
LEE: That’s an interesting question. Have I lost anybody [during those years]? I lost my mother-in-law, and I’m at the age right now where parents and peers are experiencing these kinds of things. With the recession, people are feeling the crunch in their wallets as well. These are all things that I wanted to address in the movie, like put in a sieve. And then, there’s all the social media and YouTube, and you can videotape, and reality TV. I just wanted to take what was current, but also keep what was fresh about the first movie and put it into this. So I think yes, indirectly and in direct ways, I’ve felt a lot of what the characters in the movie feel.
Q: You did such a great job with Lance and his faith, especially in the first one, and it’s a huge issue in this one. Can you talk a little bit about where you wrote that from and how you made it come off as believable and organic in both films?
LEE: Well I wanted to give Lance an even bigger challenge this time around in a test of his faith and Harper’s faith for that matter as well. I did not grow up in the church. I’m not a church-goer now. I’m a very spiritual person. I believe in a higher power. I’ve seen and been around people who are very extreme with their faith and pointing fingers and going, “You shouldn’t do that because it’s a sin against God.” It’s like, you know what? We’re people. We’re human beings. We’re fallible. We have faults, Lance included. He’s a man of faith, of great spirituality, and he’s supposed to forgive, but he can’t. He can’t look past this thing that Harper transgresses. It’s not until later that he realizes that he needs his friend in his life. I really wanted to play with those things and play with spirituality and not in an in your face type of way. I wanted to make it like so that Mia was bringing everybody together for a reason and her friends all coming together kept her strong through most of the movie. She did what she was supposed to do in bringing everybody together with her own words and with trying to push people together. I wanted to play with that, but again in what I felt was an authentic way and not trying to push forth any kind of message.
Q: So often, studios get nervous and say we can’t just have the sequel audience, we need crossover, but this movie really does stand on its own. What are your thoughts on that?
LEE: It’s funny, because in trying to get the movie off the ground, I met with the cast first. I said, “Let’s all get in the same room. I have an idea for a sequel, and if you like it, great. We’ll pursue it. If you don’t, we’ve at least all seen each other again and we’ve all been in the same room together.” It was a great dinner and it was lots of fun and drinks flowing and food eaten and a very high bill that I was paying for. But I was glad to do it because they liked my idea. So I pitched it to the studio and they liked the idea. I wrote the script and they were like, “Oh, this is kind of dark. Do we really think there should be a death? Do we really think that this character should die?” And I’m like, “Yes!” And they were like, “Well, what if we were to do a destination wedding? Maybe…” I’m not lying to you. It’s like, “What if Jordan is getting married and she wants Harper to be her best man?” and “What if it’s around Christmas time and it drives everybody crazy?” I was like, “Guys, I don’t want to do that. This is what I pitched. This is what I want to do. This is what my cast wants to do. Before we entertain any other ideas, let my cast do a reading for you and let’s see where we go.” And they’re all, “Great. Let’s do it.” We had the reading and they were sold. They were like, “Okay. We get it. We understand.” When they were seeing the dailies, they were like, “Oh my God! This is amazing.” And then, when they saw the movie, my Executive Director was like, “You kind of knew what you were doing, huh?” I said, “Yes! I have a vision for this movie.” People loved the first movie for the reasons I’ve stated before. The reason they were nervous was because it was such a departure from the first one. And I said, “Yes, in a way, it is. But it’s still fun. It’s still funny. The characters are still engaging. But we have literally some life and death issues here, and that’s what we’re going to deal with.” From my perspective and from my cast’s perspective, it was like, “Let’s continue to grow. Let’s not do the same thing. We’re coming back together. Let’s do it and let’s do it really well.” So, in terms of the whole sequel business, it was a departure, but one that was faithful to who these characters were. And people love these characters, and whatever situation we put them in, I think people will be engaged by them.
Q: How did you feel the day after you had that first dinner and the picture you took outside the restaurant immediately took off on the social media, and there was this anticipation without knowing if there was a deal in place?
LEE: There was nothing. There was none of that.
Q: People were hyped just because of the reunion aspect, the idea that this could be coming. How did that feel to have a project that generated that type of buzz?
LEE: I saw it. We got it out there. And yes, there was a good bit of buzz. I don’t know how to quantify that though. I didn’t know how exciting it was going to be or that it was going to translate into a movie getting made. I thought in the best case scenario, yes. When I talked to the studio, they were like, “Oh, so you got everybody back together?” This was a couple of months later, and I was like, “Yeah, you know, let’s talk about it.” The day after, it felt good, but again it was like I was on a mission. It’s very similar to my experience in creating the first movie. I got to a place where I’d written about five scripts. I had done a couple of short films in film school. I had done the festival thing. I was trying to get a feature off the ground. I said, “I have to write something very, very commercial. I have to do something that’s going to be commercial enough for me to sell it.” So I went into my bag of screenwriter tricks. Okay. Let’s set a structure. It can’t just be a day in the life kind of thing. There’s got to be a first and second act, an exciting incident. There’s got to be a magic prop in there with the book. It’s got to be a wedding setting and we have to have set pieces that we can put with that. It was very, very calculated. I said, “I’m going to get this ready for when …” I’d heard about this movie, “Soul Food,” coming out. If this is successful, they’ll look for the next “Soul Food.” So that’s what I did with this movie. I had a couple of things that just didn’t quite go right and things I was developing that weren’t getting off the ground. Nobody was making African American movies anymore and I was just like, “Alright, let’s be strategic about this.” Let’s get everybody together and take some pictures and let’s get the buzz out. Let’s wait until “Jump the Broom” comes out, and if that performs, I can go to the studio and say, “Hey, people want to see these movies again. Let’s go!” It’s funny how this business can work sometimes, but it all worked out.
Q: Have your years of experience taught you to be more strategic and more business-minded about getting projects off the ground?
LEE: You have to be. From the beginning, that’s been the situation. But you don’t always hear that. The business has shifted a lot since I’ve been in here. It’s what is selling and what is important. I was talking to Chris Rock and a couple of writers a few years ago. It was around 2008, 2009, and they were like, “Man, this black shit is over. Ain’t nobody doing any black…” I was like, “That’s not true because nothing works until it does.” Nobody knows anything. You don’t know what people are going to respond to. People are always surprised by stuff. Nobody thought a thing like “Think Like a Man” was going to do $91 million. I mean, nobody thinks Tyler Perry’s movies are ever going to make money, but they do. So you’ve got to keep sticking to your guns to try and push forward as much as possible.
Q: There’s one line in the movie, “It’s not just black person funny.” Is that you talking to the audience saying, “Hey guys, this is for everybody.”
LEE: A little bit. A little bit of that. That is what I think people think or say, like “That’s for black people.” What his agent is trying to say is, “Your book was so good. It wasn’t just black people that loved it. It was everybody that loved it.” It’s funny because people respond to that line. Half the audience gets where I’m coming from and half the audience is like, “Wait a minute. What does that mean?”
Q: The way the movie ends suggests there could be another sequel: Quentin’s big wedding?
LEE: We’ve got to see how this movie does before a third one is even talked about. I do have an idea.