Date of Interview: 02/05/2009
© 2009 Clayton Perry
Whenever a talented, promising artist has a noted and accomplished relative, comparisons are destined to abound. Such has been the case of Malcolm D. Lee, the cousin of renowned film director Spike Lee. In spite of the familial relationship, Malcolm D. Lee has been able to stand upon his exceptional talents and forge his own unique identity.
Need proof? Lee’s directorial debut, The Best Man, was the box office champ during its opening weekend (October 22-24, 1999), and to date, his movies have grossed $145,092,482 in domestic box office receipts.
On November 7, 2008, Dimension Films released Lee’s fifth project, Soul Men, which chronicles the reunion of two estranged soul-singing legends at the Apollo Theater. The film instantly became a cult classic upon entry into movie theaters, due to the deaths of comedian Bernie Mac and musician Isaac Hayes in August 2008, three months before the release date. Soul Men, as a consequence, stands as a lasting tribute to the lives of Mac and Hayes, as well as the tremendous body of work that these artists left behind.
In preparation for the DVD release of Soul Men, Malcolm D. Lee managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Bernie Mac, Isaac Hayes and the legacy of Stax Records.
Clayton Perry: Nearly a decade after its release, the Best Man is still considered to be the prototype for contemporary African-American films. After all these years, how do you feel about its overwhelmingly positive reception?
Malcolm Lee: It’s great, you know? The only unfortunate thing about that is it’s one of the few films that people always reference. I think that it’s great that I wrote a movie that really resonates with people across the board. That’s great, but I’ve worked on other movies since then, like Soul Men, so I want to be able to achieve that again. Part of the Best Man’s success was due to the fact that I was really hungry then. Really, really hungry, like living-with-my-parents hungry.
Clayton Perry: Well, with the Best Man, you wrote the screenplay and directed the film, unlike Soul Men, in which you only wore your director’s hat. So how did you approach Soul Men differently, since you were directing another writer’s work?
Malcolm Lee: In my career, I’ve actually directed more films than I have written. It’s always a little bit different, because I’m not as intimate with the details of the project as I would if I had written it. Every movie is different and has its particular challenges. The approach is always the same: you want to tell a story. You get the best crew to help you tell that story. You communicate with the actors to tell them what my vision is. You cast the right people, making sure that everybody can do what I’m attempting to do with the movie – to always keep it funny. In my work I like to have it as grounded as possible, have it be authentic whether it’s the dialogue or the prose or the make-up and hair – just make sure it’s grounded in reality. In the case of Soul Men, it’s a buddy comedy, with a lot of onscreen performances and a lot of dance performances. So that’s another layer of challenge for me. There’s going to be some outlandish and silly things that happen because it’s a comedy. But, hopefully, it’s grounded in reality, with people and places that are relatable to the audience.
Clayton Perry: As you speak about authenticity, I am curious to know what kind of background research you had to conduct for Soul Men? The film makes a lot of references to Stax Records and music history in general.
Malcolm Lee: I watched a couple of Stax documentaries, went to the Stax museum, watched a number of movies, and listened to a bunch of music. I watched a lot of road movies, a lot of buddy films, a lot of music movies just to really see what worked and what didn’t, what my version of that movie might’ve been. I just wanted to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Some of the band members that we used as extras were people that lived in that era. Willie Hall, Skip Pitts and Ben Cauley were musicians that played in The House of Soul scene where Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson sing “Do Your Thing.” Skip Pitts and Willie Hall also played on a number of Isaac Hayes’ hits. Ben Cauley – who’s a trumpeter in that scene, with a red suit – was a member of The Bar-Kays whose plane went down with Otis Redding. He was the only survivor of that plane. I wanted to include him in the movie and pay homage to people that have been there and lived it.
Clayton Perry: As you were going through this research process, what was the most interesting bit of knowledge that you learned about Stax Records?
Malcolm Lee: Wow! There are so many stories. It was an integrated company. It was started by Jim Stewart, a white guy, and his sister, Estelle Axton. One of my favorites is about Otis Redding, a skinny kid that was helping a bunch of musicians load in one day. When they were doing a session, he kept on bugging one of the MGs about playing a song for him. The guy had been putting him off for a long time. After a while, he said, “Okay, fine. We’ll play you a song.” He sang and they were like, “Holy cow!” A star was born. The music that I had heard throughout the years in movies and in the airports and television shows and commercials that was familiar to me was a lot of Booker T and MGs’ music, instrumental music. I never knew that many of those songs were by the group, like “Green Onions” – that was a song that I’ve heard for a long time. So there were things like that. Isaac Hayes was a songwriter for years and years. The first album that he made at Stax was a disaster, because they tried to put him in a box. On the second record, he said, “Listen, don’t put handcuffs on me and let me do my thing.” He made “Walk On By” and it was huge. You know, Stax has a real rich history.
Clayton Perry: When you were filming on location in Memphis, did you face any challenges while shooting at any of the historical locations?
Malcolm Lee: Not particularly. I just wanted to try and capture as much as I could. The studio didn’t really want to shoot in Memphis. They thought it was too expensive to move the whole crew, but I was like, “We got to do it. That’s the city we’re saying the guys are from. That’s where Stax music is from.” So I wanted to capture as much as I could that was picturesque and had some historical significance. That’s why you see a scene shot at the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot. Even though it’s a bad memory, it is historic and it needs to be remembered.
Clayton Perry: Well, I am happy that the studio let you do what you knew what right to do, because Soul Men definitely feels authentic. Even the characters feel real, and Bernie Mac and Samuel Jackson had great chemistry on the set. Is there a particular scene with the two actors that holds a special place in your heart?
Malcolm Lee: The scene that we beat up, the scene where they first meet in Lewis’ (Samuel L. Jackson’s) apartment. In the first week of shooting, I knew that I had to get right. We all had to get right. That scene was the whole foundation for the movie. I told everyone, “If that scene’s not right, nobody will care. It’s not going to work. But if it does, if they do care, then we’re going to be fine. It’s going to be a hit. If it’s not a hit, the camera will see it and won’t come on the screen right in a major way.” It’s a very funny scene, very telling of who their characters were and are. It’s a great scene that I was very happy to shoot.
Clayton Perry: I can only imagine. That was a great scene and definitely showcased Bernie Mac at his finest. When he was out in the hallway—ranting and raving—for a solid minute, that was very funny.
Malcolm Lee: Yeah, that was all Bernie. All I had to do was put the camera at the end of the hallway and let him do his thing.
Clayton Perry: Well, the scene was pulled off perfectly. Another one of my favorite scenes is when Cleo (Sharon Leal) performed “Comfort Me” in the living room. How important was music placement in setting the right mood for that scene and how did you come about choosing that particular song?
Malcolm Lee: For the music, Alex Steyermark and I were trying to find a great song that wouldn’t necessarily be familiar nor cost a lot of money to do but still be a great song. Eventually, we came across Carla Thomas’ “Comfort Me.” It’s a great song, but the way that she performs it is more up tempo than what I wanted it to be and a lot less intimate than what I wanted it to be in the movie. So I said, “Look, in the scene, there’s only going to be a piano and it’s going to be a very intimate thing and it’s going to be a quiet moment for her father to observe her without her knowing it.” When we were thinking about it, I don’t remember what else we considered. We were thinking about a couple of Otis Redding songs, but of course they’re very expensive. It ended up being an opportunity to play a song that not a lot of people knew but is still a great piece of music. It’s sort of a cliché when you play songs that people know. It’s great for musical purposes like when you have a song like “Hold On, I’m Coming” and “Do Your Thing” but it’s good to expose your audience to some songs they’ve never heard before.
Clayton Perry: In what ways can a movie soundtrack make or break a film? You mentioned that you had access to some songs that were familiar, but you also wanted to introduce new music. How hard is it to play such a delicate balancing act?
Malcolm Lee: I wanted it to be that way. That was my vision for it, because how many times have you bought an album and thought: “Yo, this song is great. They don’t play this on the radio at all. Why not? This song needs to be heard.” I just wanted to have that. You suck people in with more familiar music but then there’s music that’s just great to hear like “Boogie Ain’t Nuttin’.” I don’t know how many people knew that song before we put it back out there. I just wanted to have that opportunity. Of course, we had Cee-Lo write a song for us – “A Walk in the Park.” That was hot. I thought that would be a hit but you know, that’s why I’m in the movie industry and not in the music industry. I can’t tell you what’s a hit. When they told me about certain group earlier in my career, they played “Bills, Bills, Bills” for me when I was doing Best Man. They said this group is going to be huge. I was like, “With this?” [laughing] What drives the music industry is youth and I was beginning to not be a youth at that time.
Clayton Perry: Since you’re saying you’re more into the movie side of the business than the music side…
Malcolm Lee: I love music. I love great music. In every one of my movies I tried to put together a great collection of music. 3 out of the 5 movies that I’ve done have had a lot of ‘70s music in it. That was an era of creative musical genius and pioneering spirit and the height of creativity.
Clayton Perry: In the end credits of Soul Men, you feature Isaac Hayes’ cover of “Never Can Say Goodbye.” When you hear that song, what kinds of emotions run through your mind—especially with the recent passings of Isaac and Bernie?
Malcolm Lee: For me, closing that movie with that song was the most appropriate thing that we could have done. We didn’t have a whole lot of footage of Isaac, so what better way to pay homage to him by showing a couple of pictures of him and play one of his classic songs on the Stax label? He gave you a totally different version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” than the Jackson 5, which is an amazing song. We got to actually go to the original tracks and remake that song.
Clayton Perry: Oh, that’s nice.
Malcolm Lee: It was awesome, awesome. I got more emotional hearing that in the studio than actually seeing it on the screen, because I’ve seen the film a number of times. I know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen. I just hope other people appreciate it.
Clayton Perry: I definitely did. Looking back at the film and knowing the events surrounding its release, hearing that particular song at the end was very emotional for me. I definitely like the placement at the end. I thought it was very tasteful and fitting.
Malcolm Lee: Thank you.
Clayton Perry: Although everyone knows you as “Spike Lee’s cousin,” you’ve been able to forge your own identity as a film maker, in spite of the obvious comparisons. How difficult was that process?
Malcolm Lee: I think Spike and I are very different film makers. We grew up in different eras. I’m certainly influenced by his work, but the particular genre that I have chosen – which is, by and large, comedy – is something that he doesn’t really do. He does do movies with humor, but they’re usually social commentaries. That hasn’t been what I’ve done thus far. Again, we’re just different film makers, different people.
Clayton Perry: I stumbled across a quote that you made a long time ago, but now—in the age of Obama—it kind of resonates more with me. In reference to the Best Man, you stated that you were trying to make movies that showcase middle-class characters who just happened to be black. What’s your reflection on that comment?
Malcolm Lee: I still have that philosophy to this day. I don’t know how more important it is now, but that fact that we have President Barack Obama in the White House is a sign obviously of progress. It’s like, “Thank God! Not only do we see educated, intelligent African-Americans in a movie but now we got them in the White House and they’re leading the country. They’re leading the free world.” That’s an amazing thing. Just the image of that real black family representing America is like a beautiful thing to me. It’s a manifestation of a dream.
Clayton Perry: When you go to the studio or when you come across a script, how does this mantra play out, when you’re about to start working on a project?
Malcolm Lee: I try to set a tone. I try to make sure that African-Americans are represented in a way that’s not stereotypical. I’m quite certain some would argue that part of Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins is stereotypical. And perhaps with Soul Men. But again, I try to ground my films as much as I can in reality and make it relatable. I think everybody can relate to those kinds of family members, whether you want to acknowledge them or not. They’re out there. Not every family is perfect. We all got our issues. I try to keep it as real as possible and remove over-the-top BS.
Clayton Perry: The Apollo Theater was prominently displayed in Soul Men and the venue was also used for the film’s premiere. What elements went into the decision-making process behind using the Apollo Theater for the premiere?
Malcolm Lee: For African-American singers, that’s the pinnacle of performing. If you make it in the Apollo, you made it. More so than Radio City Music Hall or Carnegie Hall or anything like that. If you get props from the Apollo crowd, then you’re good. That’s how it’s been throughout its existence. Since the Apollo Theater was written in the script and Soul Men starts in LA and ends in New York, in a way, it just felt right to have the movie premiere there. Thankfully, the Apollo crowd treated us well [laughing].
For more information on Malcolm D. Lee, visit his Internet Movie Database (IMDb) profile: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002700/
For more information on Soul Men, visit Dimension Film’s official website: http://www.soulmen-movie.com/